Low-income single mother rose to politics – the work of Women’s Bank producing results in Nepal

After her divorce, relatives refused to help. Now Kamu Sunar is the one people come to for help and advice.

A little boy comes to Kamu Sunar’s shop. He chooses a chocolate bar and hands over the money. He has already turned to leave when Sunar reminds him to take the change with him.

Kamu Sunar’s shop takes up one room in a two-storey stone building on the narrow main street of the village of Bhardeu. The shop sells a variety of items from soap and bracelets to shoes and petrol. The small village of Bhardeu is located in a verdant valley right in the middle of Nepal.

Sunar is a Dalit, or an outcaste, as well as an entrepreneur and a single mother. Now, she is also a municipal councillor on the Nepalese rural municipal council Gaupalika, meaning she gets to participate in local decision-making.

For several years, a women’s cooperative supported by the Finn Church Aid volunteer network Women’s Bank has operated in Sunar’s home village. The women who belong to it have received education and support for e.g. saving and agriculture as well as starting their own small businesses. The members of the cooperative have improved their financial and social position, but according to the women, equally important has been an improvement in self-esteem, team spirit within the group, and support from others.

And when a municipal election was held in Nepal, the women of Bhardeu decided to join forces. They voted for Kamu Sunar, a respected member of the group who had a slightly better chance of being elected, thanks to a Dalit quota. When she was elected, it was a victory for all of them.

In politics, Sunar wants to promote the financial and mental empowerment of women. In Nepal, the situation of women is still poor, and not everyone thinks rights such as ownership rights and financial power of decision belong to women just like they do to men.

Went to school in secret, married young

Kamu Sunar

Remote Bhardeu has not always been home for Kamu Sunar. Her childhood was spent in the capital Kathmandu where her parents had a goldsmith shop. Her childhood as the eldest daughter of a family with five children was a happy one.

”I went to school for five years. After that, my parents wanted me to help my mother at home and my father at the shop. Even as a child, I was strong-willed. I was very interested in mathematics. I tried continuing to go to school in secret, but when my parents found out, I got a beating, and I had to drop out of school.”

Kamu Sunar sighs. Now comes the most painful part of her story.

A young man visited the goldsmith shop.

”I was 15 years old when we met, and he was six years older than me. We married for love.”

A couple of decades ago, love matches were much less common in Nepal than they are today. The newlyweds moved to the groom’s home village of Bhardeu. They were happy together for ten years.

”Then he found someone else. I don’t want to talk about it any more than this. He betrayed me. I don’t want to think about him,” says Sunar.

”No, I definitely never intend to marry again, because I don’t want that to happen to me again.”

When her husband left her, Sunar and her young children, a girl and a boy, were left destitute. The family of the husband did not want to help them.

”My children gave me courage. I didn’t want them to suffer.”

”Mom is kind-hearted and funny”

Kamu Sunari

Being a member of the women’s cooperative helped Sunar rearrange her life. Little by little, Sunar acquired both skills and capital. She got a loan of 15,000 Nepalese rupees (110 euros) to start her own shop. Having her own shop had been a lifelong dream.

The shop was a success. Both of her children got the chance to stay in school for as long as they would like.

We close the shop for a while and go see Kamu Sunar’s construction site. She is about to fulfil another dream, a home of her own. Her time living in her ex-husband’s brother’s house is coming to an end. The house is not even safe, because it was damaged in the powerful earthquakes of 2015.

Sunar’s small plot of land is within walking distance of the shop in this beautiful valley in which the village is located. Houses are scattered few and far between in the valley, surrounded by meadows and terraced maize and mustard fields. In this country known for its snowy peaks, the tall green hills surrounding the valley cannot be called mountains.

At the plot, Sunar’s daughter and a friend are working in the heat of the sun, crushing rocks. You can also buy crushed rock, but it is cheaper to make your own.

Soon there will be a small house on the plot that belongs to no one but Sunar. It feels wonderful.

Tomorrow, 14-year-old daughter Amrita can leave crushing rocks behind and gets to go to school, as the school year starts.

”Amrita is stronger than I am. She talks a lot and has lots of suggestions,” says Sunar.

Amrita is interested in a career as a volleyball player. ”She gets to choose herself,” Sunar assures us. Her 18-year-old son Amit works in a goldsmith shop in Kathmandu, but often visits his mother and sister.

”Mom is kind-hearted and funny. And a little strict. Mom used to be very quiet, but not anymore. I’m really pround of her being on the council,” says Amrita.

Work on behalf of women

Outcaste people still face many kinds of discrimination in Nepal.

”I’ve suffered a lot because I’m outcaste. But I have learned a lot as well. I’m here now because I have had so much support,” says Sunar.

According to Sunar, all members of the council are like one big family.

”We dine together and help each other. There is no discrimination there.”

Sunar knows from experience exactly what kind of skills a woman needs in order to improve her situation in society. She is now in a position to give advice and help others.

Being on the council only pays a small fee, and the 460 municipal councils of an impoverished country do not have a great deal of funds to hand out for local development. 18 percent of the funds are especially reserved for supporting women. This is better than nothing at all.

”My mind used to be empty. Now I have lots of knowledge, skills and ideas,” describes Sunar.

”Now I’m very happy.”

Text: Ulla Kärki
Photos: Veera Pitkänen

Finn Church Aid shuts down its Liberia and Sierra Leone country programmes

Finn Church Aid (FCA) has decided to shut down its country programmes in Liberia and Sierra Leone by the end of 2017. Involvement in Liberia led to the founding of the Women’s Bank volunteer network which currently has thousands of volunteers.

“It is always difficult to make a decision like this. Over the past year we have worked hard to find new donors in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, but have not been adequately successful. However, it’s great that the work will continue by a local civil society organisation”, says Jouni Hemberg, FCA’s Executive Director.

Finn Church Aid has operated in both West African countries for ten years. Involvement began with rebuilding efforts after over a decade of civil war and included training on farming methods and provision of psychosocial support and education to former child soldiers, particularly girls.

“After ten years, our work is now picked up by locals. The Liberian staff members of our country office are founding a new, Liberian organisation to continue the work that FCA has done, and this is exactly how it should go”, Hemberg says.

The decision was affected in part by Finnish foreign ministry’s cuts on development funding but also FCA’s shifted focus on the most fragile countries of the world, which Liberia and Sierra Leone no longer are.

“At the moment we are discussing the closure of our programmes with beneficiaries and local partners and planning how we could best support them to ensure that the work remains on a sustainable foundation”, says Marjo Mäenpää, Desk Officer for West and Central Africa.

Income opportunities and Ebola prevention

FCA has maintained a country programme and a country office in Liberia since 2007. In Sierra Leone, FCA has been operating for seven years, and even before that, since 1993, FCA has supported the work of the Lutheran World Federation in both countries. During civil wars, work focused on providing basic necessities at refugee camps.

FCA’s own work has focused on developing village communities and supporting livelihoods in rural areas by organising training on farming methods and supporting youth professional education.

From 2010, FCA assisted refugees who fled violence in Ivory Coast during elections by maintaining schools on Ivorian refugee camps in Liberia.

Omai Toka korjaa riisisatoaan Liberiassa.

During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, many rural families had to eat their seed corn. Omai Toka is harvesting her rice  in the village Gohn in Grand Cape Mount county in 2015. She bought the seed corn with the support of Finn Church Aid’s food security programme. Photo: Ville Palonen.

During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, FCA distributed hygiene products – like soap, buckets and chlorine –, organised large-scale awareness campaigns to prevent the spread of Ebola and supported efforts to maintain food security. The latest humanitarian operation was the distribution of relief packages to victims of landslides and floods in Sierra Leone in late 2017.

In Liberia, FCA will conclude its EU-funded project to train prison staff and communities and promote the rights of prisoners to legal counsel. The project will conclude in early 2019.

Women’s Bank volunteer network has its origins in Liberia

In January 2007, FCA invited a group of socially active women from Finland to travel to Liberia and meet local women. The trip inspired the group to act for the benefit of other women in developing countries. On 24 May 2007, Women’s Bank was formed and in ten years, it has grown into a network of over 3,000 volunteers and raised 11 million euros of funds to support more than 40,000 people in the developing world.

In Liberia and Sierra Leone, Women’s Bank supported vulnerable girls and women in obtaining livelihoods, for example by providing vocational education and entrepreneurship training.  Altogether, 12,000 people benefitted from the Women’s Banks’ work in the two countries.