For years, Sakuram Bagwan, 35, a resident of Khajura Rural Municipality of Banke district, did not know the importance of a citizenship certificate. Neither did she know the process to acquire it. A citizenship certificate is a legal document essential to receive all state benefits. Yet dozens of women in Sakuram’s community were living without it.
In the backward Madheshi Dalit community of Nepal, where Sakuram belonged, public forums, group meetings and gatherings were non-existent, let alone discussions on the promotion of women’s rights, voting rights, local-level service delivery, violence against women, gender-based violence (GBV), polygamy and other social agendas.
However, a social mobilizer from Himat Dalit Women’s Group, a local women’s rights group, helped Sakuram and other women of her community to come together to discuss their problems.. “As we realized her situation and her desperate desire to come out of the poverty trap, we encouraged her to participate in entrepreneurship development training and public discussion platforms. Being in a group also helped her to become aware of various issues related to caste and gender-based discrimination, child rights, the importance of health and sanitation as well as education,” said the social mobilizer.
Funded by DCA and implemented by local partner Female Dalit Organization (FEDO) Chalfal Chautari, a public platform for discussion, have been transforming the lives of women like Sakuram, informing them about their rights, structures of local level and different administrative procedures, including acquiring citizenship certificate in backward areas of Banke and Kailali districts.
Set up with guidance from FEDO, representatives of community-level groups like Himat have been visiting villages and encouraging women from Dalit and marginalized communities to organize orientations and training programs and participate in the Chalfal Chautari.
Laxmi Dalit, a resident of Baijanath Palika of Banke District is another beneficiary of the program. After participating in Chalfal Chautari, she came to know about income-generating programs and literacy classes available in her own Palika.
“Although it was only half a day of open discussion, Chalfal Chautari helped me to get the information on how to move forward,” said Laxmi. “I learned acts, regulations and procedures of getting services in Palikas and to have access to the programs.”
After taking part in various discussions and listening to presentations including from the ward chair, she took a month’s tailoring training and started to work in a tailoring shop.
Focusing not only on the individual problems, Chalfal Chautari has also worked to rescue missing children in the communities. Ujyalo Women’s Group, a Dalit women’s group of Rampur in Kailari Rural Municipality of Kailali District, has shown how a platform like Chalfal Chautari can effectively work to solve a variety of problems, bringing all stakeholders together.
In 2019, the group became successful to bring the police and local-level communities together in rescuing four children, who migrated to India following the death of their parents. They rescued Ganesh BK (15), Bibek BK (10), Bishal BK (14); and Anjali BK (12) from India. Bishal and Ganesh are now studying in class 7 and Bibek and Anjali are studying in class 4 with full scholarships.
Lajuram Chaudhary, Chairman of Kailari Rural Municipality, opined that Chalfal Chautari has played an important role to bring those children.
“Earlier Ujyalo Women’s Group brought the issue of missing orphans and invited police, our representatives, local civil society members and school headmasters to Chalfal Chautari to discuss the possible way out. Nepal Police, along with the Local Government, provided support to search for the migrated children. After rescuing them, the group coordinated with the public school for their enrollment and they are now studying,” said Chaudhary.
This shows that the platform also extends support in mitigating the gaps between citizens, local administration and Local Government and building their confidence to take support from other relevant stakeholders as and when needed. It has also enhanced the capacity of the women’s groups to negotiate with Local Government and stakeholders and claim for justice and rights when needed.
Local-level community groups constituted through facilitation by FEDO have been organizing the open discussion forum in various Wards of Kailari Rural Municipality and Gauriganga Municipality to increase the level of awareness and access of women, Dalit and marginalized communities at the local levels.
Focused on the issues and agenda related to the local community, this program has been immensely contributing to increase the level of awareness and number of informed citizenry. This is helping to transform the society in Kailari and Gauriganga Municipality.
With funding from DCA, DWRF and local women’s groups have also been implementing advocacy programs in Gauriganga Municipality Wards 10 and 11 and few wards (5, 6, 7 and 8) in Kailari Rural Municipality.
The programs include reduction of child marriage, GBV and caste-based discrimination, informing local groups on the existing laws like Act against caste-based discrimination, child marriage, dowry and Chaupadi. As the COVID-19 pandemic has badly affected the society in Kailari and Gauriganga, the platform is also helping generate awareness against COVID-19 and providing financial support for post-pandemic recovery.
Padam Bahadur Air, Chairperson of Ward 10, and Binod Kumar Chaudhary, Chairperson of Ward 11 sees the platform as an important channel to disseminate the information and interact with the people to understand their own concerns.
“Chalfal Chautari is the right forum to address the issue because of the presence of a large number of people from the community, “concluded Binita Devi BK, executive member of Gauriganga Municipality.
“The overall objective of the project is to make Dalit women and men – especially from Madheshi and excluded groups, able to combat discrimination and exclusion and claim their rights and entitlements,” said Durga Sob, Founder President of FEDO. “Chalfal Chautari is an open platform to share the experiences and learn the legal and other issues related to them. Focused on the issues and agenda related to the local community, this program has been immensely contributing to increase awareness and informed citizenry. This is very much contributing to transform society.”
Following the promulgation of the Constitution of Nepal 2015, many laws were also brought in the new context ensuring the rights of women, Dalit and marginalized communities. But, in the absence of civic education programs, large numbers of people are still unaware of them.
In this context, Chalfal Chautari has come to be a game-changer in informing the people and empowering the vulnerable and marginalized.
Civic education can be broadly defined as the provision of information and learning experiences aimed to equip and empower citizens to participate in democratic processes.
Civic education is taken as a lifelong learning process that each individual has opportunities to learn, unlearn and relearn throughout their life. There is no target group for civic education as each member of a family, community and society can be a member of the platform.
Some of the common uses of civic education outside of schools include voter education, vital registration, and education in rights to information, awareness-raising programs for women and disadvantaged groups including Dalits and their social and political rights and leadership training for local civil society activists.
Civic education has also been used in the public sector to improve the democratic functioning of local government, public service providers, community leaders and political parties.
For this, different forms of delivery include classroom-based learning, informal learning, experiential learning, mass media campaigns and awareness activities are required.
DCA has been adopting this approach as part of community mobilization in its programmatic goal through Chalfal Chautari. In Nepali parlance, Chautari stands for a public place where people can gather and discuss their personal, social and professional issues or any other matters.
With this program, DCA and its local partners have been helping women to gather in a public place to discuss a wide range of issues and agendas and to join and discuss their common issues and identify solutions by themselves. Sometimes, local partners also provide advice and suggestion by sending experts from government institutions and other service providers as required by the local community.
Yek Maya BK, Vice-chairperson of Khajura Rural Municipality holds the view that this kind of interaction is really effective to create informed citizens. “My own experience is that this program has increased the visit of the number of marginalized and Dalits to the rural municipal offices. Compared to three years ago, I see a lot of women visiting the municipality inquiring about the services provided by it.”
Chalfal Chautari aims to promote civic engagement and support democratic and participatory governance. The idea behind Chalfal Chautari is to promote the demand for good governance (i.e. an informed and engaged public), as a necessary complement to improve the practice of good governance.
Chalfal Chautari now plays a key role to address a wide variety of political, economic and governance issues. Ongoing experiences have shown that only aware and active citizens can hold the government accountable and ensure their rights. If citizens understand and are aware of the governance system, they can go there to claim services. At a time when Nepal’s government system is being transformed from a central to a federal structure, it is important to empower local communities. This is only possible from formal and informal education systems.
“Programs such as Chalfal Chautari are essential to increase the awareness level of community members. Without increasing awareness at the level of citizens, nothing can change,” said Sarada Regmi Bishwokarma, Vice-chairperson of Khajura Rural Municipality. “Previously we had more men coming for vital registration or any other work, but women are also coming to the ward offices seeking services these days. There is a vast change.”
With many Chalfal Chautari running in different areas, DCA, in coordination with its partners, has developed Chalfal Chautari Operation Guidelines to ensure uniformity. This facilitates to bring everyone on the same page and deliver the best, serving as a platform to give voice to the voiceless people.
Chalfal Chautari has already established itself as a citizen platform for people who are left behind in their access to information or are deprived and neglected. Moreover, this platform could also build the skill and knowledge of the community to identify their issues and find solutions through self-reflection and sharing of experiences so that they don’t have to wait for others to support them.