Interview with Nirmala Chaudhary, Nepal Country Director

Can you tell us about yourself and your history with buildOn?

My name is Nirmala Chaudhary. I’m the Country Director of buildOn Nepal. I have been working for buildOn since April 2007. I joined buildOn as an Education Coordinator and then was promoted to Education Officer in 2011. At the same time, I also worked as an in-country Trek Coordinator. I was promoted to Country Director in January of 2014. Since being promoted to Country Director, 189 schools have been built under my leadership (for reference, buildOn Nepal has built 301 schools since 1994). Program and staff increased from seven to 25 and we were able to host 100 Treks. Similarly, we were able to educate more than 2,150 women and men from 86 Adult Literacy Programs, launch an Enroll Program in 2015, and enroll 13,875 out-of-school children in school. And during my time, 10,327 parents have been involved in income-generating programs, and they’ve raised approximately NPR 385,400 (around $3,315) from these initiatives. 

You are the first female Country Director in Nepal. What does this achievement mean to you? 

This is one of the very big achievements for me and for all Nepalese women. This is not common in Nepal to become a female Country Director. We are still growing under a patriarchal society. Women do not have the same rights as men, even though the Nepali constitution says there should not be any discrimination between men and women. 

In education, there is a low investment in girls. Girls have the obligation to choose low-cost education paths, like humanities, education, commerce, etc. Technical education paths, like studying to become an engineer, doctor, pilot, or nurse are very expensive in Nepal and very few girls are getting opportunities to get this kind of education. Those who do are very lucky because they are in very good positions after completion of their studies.

I’m from a marginalized ethnic group, and if you compare to other groups, there are few educated ladies in my group. In this situation, I’m one of the lucky ladies and hopefully an inspiration for every girl who wants to become successful. Because of this, being a female Country Director is extremely important to me. 

What are you most proud of during your time as a Country Director in Nepal? 

There are so many things that make me proud as a Country Director of Nepal. I will share just a few of them.

There was a school opening program at Simari community on February 8, 2021. The political leaders, village leaders, journalists, police forces, community people, and so many others were in the program. At that time many speakers from the community were talking about the school. The school formally opened in 1984, but this was the first time the community had a proper, roof-slab school. Every speaker was thanking me and buildOn for the beautiful school and bathrooms – buildOn broke the history of the school by providing this new school block. Among the speakers was a person who mentions my name many times and is one of my inspirations. When I was small (just 14 years old), he invited me to sit in his car (I was on the way to school) and that was my first time touching and sitting in a car. I was deeply amazed. I couldn’t believe that it was a reality that we are now in the same program in the same position (as special guests). At that time, I felt so proud to be a part of buildOn. 

Additionally, before I became a Country Director everyone knew me as a sister and daughter of my family, but after this position, it’s the opposite. Many people are visiting my brother and requesting him to ask me about the process of building a school in their community. When this happens, my brother feels proud of me. I also received an appreciation letter recently from Joshipur rural municipality for work on education in the community. It makes me so proud. 

Is it common to have women in leadership positions in Nepal? 

No, this is not common in Nepal. Nowadays, there is 33% women participation in political institutions and some other places, but this has only been in effect since 2015. But women are not often in leadership roles. They often only hold ceremonial positions. Nepal constitution preserves the seat of deputy mayor or vice president for women so there are deputy mayors and vice presidents in every municipality. We also have a female president in Nepal, and it is the very first time. If we look at Sudurpaschim province (Far-West Nepal), there is only one woman in the position of mayor. If you look at Nepal civil staff or other areas, there are few women and very few are in the higher positions. Sadly, women leaders are not as common as they should be.

Why is it important in Nepal – and everywhere – to have women in leadership roles?

It is very important in Nepal and everywhere to have women in leadership. These are some of the most important reasons, in my opinion. From my experience, women tend to be very fair and impartial. This is especially true during the school building construction. I’ve never seen any kind of discrimination between races, religions, or gender when women lead the work. 

Also, in my experience, women show tremendous loyalty, trust, and transparency. We’ve had ALP (Adult Literacy Program) facilitators and OOSC (Out of School Children Program) facilitators both men and women, and in my observation, women have been the most committed and loyal to the program. Also, there is a reason why in so many committees you can see women serving as treasurers. Because when there is transparency, loyalty, and impartiality, there is going to be less corruption and better governance and success. 

What are some of the challenges/barriers that keep girls and women in Nepal from achieving their goals? 

In the context of Nepal, there are so many challenges that keep women from achieving their goals. In my experience, these are some of the biggest barriers: 

  • Acceptance of change: In Nepal, people hardly accept women in leadership. In so many places, we have to prove that we are good leaders, even though we can do anything that men can do. Few people believe in the power and potential of women. Women have the same mind as men, but women are not in the same positions. There is bias in providing education and opportunity. Parents send their daughters to school but they are also still expected to do household work and take care of their brothers and sisters. 
  • Chhaupadi practice: This is a kind of conservative thought that when girls are menstruating they have to stay in a separate place. For example, they can’t sleep in their own bed. They can’t enter the kitchen. They can’t touch the tap for at least 5 days, etc.  So many girls can’t attend the classroom regularly and there are also no facilities to help them catch up with their studies, which means they drop their studies for 4 to 5 days each month. Also, although the government is implementing some programs for girls – i.e. providing sanitary pads, building separate toilets, etc. – most girls don’t have access to gender-specific toilets at their schools. These old practices and norms keep holding girls back.  
  • Child marriage: This is also a barrier preventing girls from moving forward. A boy can continue his study after marriage, but girls can’t because they have too many responsibilities after marriage. They have to take care of their father-in-law and mother-in-law. Cook food for them. Wash dishes, clothes, take care of children, etc. Girls must take on all the household work and responsibilities. Additionally, they have very little choice whether they want to conceive babies or not. There is an obligation to give birth after marriage, and they can get treated badly if they give birth to a baby girl. 
  • Lack of awareness: Another barrier is that parents are not aware of the benefits of educating their girls. If women cannot get a good education then how can they become educated and ensure that their children are educated?

Do you have any advice for young women in Nepal and around the world?

Strive to learn, be educated, and help educate others. Education is the most important tool for everyone. Without it, we can’t do anything. We are facing so many oppressive problems, and to move forward and break this cycle, we must be educated. I know we have to face many challenges if we want to move forward but there is a proverb: failure is a symbol of moving toward success.