A broken pot… a path to restoration!
A broken pot… a path to restoration!

By: Gloria Katusiime
Children race across the dirt paved road to meet us. Their faces are streaked with dirt, their hair unkempt, but it’s their big smiles and laughter that grips me. I have just only arrived in this village, but clearly this is a very poor community. The mud and grass thatched houses, open sewers running between them, tell a story of poverty and need. Animals share the same housing space as the villagers in this Dalit (low caste) community.

After a night out drinking, Ramesh (not real name) returned home to beat his wife and two children, as he had frequently done for several years. But on this particular night, he beat her to death. For his two children, left without a mother and a father (now in prison), a life of struggle and difficulty was certain.
It had been a long school day, and Sheela Gajmer Bishwokarma was tired and thirsty. After taking a drink of water from the school’s communal water pot, she was shocked to see her classmates kick the pot over and smash it to pieces. At the age of just 13 years, the brutal reality of discrimination against low caste people like Sheela struck her painfully.

These are the stories and common experiences for many people born in low caste communities throughout Nepal.
For thousands of years, the Dalits have lived at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. They face very high illiteracy rates, because their children are often unable to go to school. Many of them are landless, squatting on unused land. They often work in the fields of others to get a meagre income, enough only to feed the family for that day. Every member of the family is needed to do their share of work in the fields, including the little children.

Sheela Gajmer Bishwokarma has never forgotten the broken water pot and the rejection she suffered from her classmates. This shattering experience still motivates Sheela to do what she does – advocating for the rights and freedoms of Dalits – because of her childhood experience.
She is the founder of a local Nepali organisation called Jana Chetana Samuha (JCS), which was established to raise awareness of the plight and issues surrounding the discrimination and lack of opportunities for Dalits. It also assists households to start income generation enterprises.

JCS operates a credit and saving scheme with a membership of about 50 women, many of whom are now managing small businesses of their own, selling vegetables and operating sidewalk tea shops. They are also working in the Dalit community, speaking to parents about the importance of sending their children to school, and tackling other rampant community problems like alcohol abuse.

UMN is partnering with JCS, helping it to better understand its goal and mission so that its activities and initiatives in the community are more effective and sustainable.
From a frightened schoolgirl, Sheela has grown into a dynamic, assertive woman raising a powerful voice against discrimination and stigmatisation. The broken water pot has begun a process of restoration.

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