Nepalese Activist Raises Her Voice Against Discrimination

Bishnu Maya Pariyar (screen shot from the documentary "Untouchable" a Join the Lights Production, at http://www.bishnumayapariyar.com)

Bishnu Maya Pariyar (screenshot from the documentary “Untouchable,” a Join the Lights production, at bishnumayapariyar.com)

Born in a very poor family of the Taklung Village Development Committee in Gorkha district, Nepal, Bishnu Maya Pariyar, 40, has made a name for herself amid lots of ups and downs in her life. Hers is a familiar name not only among Nepalese communities in the U.S. but also increasingly among Americans. Pariyar, a New Jersey resident, is known for her work on behalf of the issues of women’s rights, domestic violence, and the rights of Dalits. (Dalit is the so-called “untouchable” or low caste in Nepal.)

Pariyar, who spent her childhood in extreme poverty, dedicates her life to the rights of others. Being a Dalit herself, and having suffered discrimination, has motivated her to work for social justice since her childhood.

Pariyar was born into a big family. She was the fifth child among 11. They were 10 sisters and one brother. Her father urged her to move ahead in life and work to fight social injustice.

Nepal’s constitution has banned the practice of “untouchability.” But practically, it still exists. (Untouchability refers to the practice whereby members of so-called higher castes could not come in physical contact with the Dalits.)

Pariyar slowly understood her identity when she was around 10 years old. She was humiliated by her friends because she belonged to a Dalit family, and she asked her parents about this behavior. Her father would say: “My daughter, this practice has been here since time immemorial. This is an old system. Now you have to be well educated to fight against this.” Her father’s encouragement helped her to do well in her studies, and she was a very good student who never came in second in her class.

(…)

Due to her family’s poor economic circumstance she had a very tough time studying. Eventually she obtained scholarship support and changed schools, moving to a secondary school where she met a Peace Corps volunteer, John Brookman, who used to teach there. Brookman helped her get scholarships for further studies in the capital city Kathmandu.

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Pariyar went to Kathmandu in hopes of further studies but her hopes faded when she found out that the money sent to her by John Brookman from the U.S. was taken by somebody else. She said, “Then I was forced to work at a restaurant to afford my studies. I also worked in the garment industry. One day, I remembered that I had a U.S. phone number of John Brookman [and I got in touch with him]. I told him the entire story and then he sent some money through his American friend Pam Ross. The meeting with Pam Ross became a turning point in my life. She used to live in Kathmandu and was the country director of the University of Wisconsin, Study Abroad program. Ross offered her a scholarship for her college in Nepal. Impressed with Pariyar’s progress, Ross later offered her a job as research assistant there.

When she was working there, she befriended an American, Jacob Kasell, who was studying in Nepal. His mother Eva Kasell came to meet her son in Nepal. When Jacob introduced her to Eva, she was so impressed with her that she offered to sponsor her education in the U.S.

Pariyar came to the U.S. in 1999 and studied only English for one semester. Then, she was awarded a full scholarship by Pine Manor College in Massachusetts. She became a top student, received numerous awards and completed her bachelor’s degree in Social and Politics Systems in 2004.

Pariyar has been involved in social issues since her childhood. She says, “When I was a 10-year-old, I experienced and witnessed the violence against women and Dalits. When we were playing as kids, we were not allowed to enter their (so-called high caste) house but they were allowed to enter ours.”

Pariyar felt the need for a nonprofit organization to work for the Dalits of Nepal. She says, “When I was doing my bachelor’s degree at Padma Kanya College in Kathmandu, I registered a nonprofit organization, Association for Dalit Women’s Advancement of Nepal (ADWAN), in 1996. I started with seed money of $100. The organization has provided support of more than $600,000 until now. It also offered more than $100,000 to survivors of the recent April earthquake in Nepal.”

Raised funds from selling shawls

On Mother’s Day, Pariyar gave the gift of a Nepali shawl to her godmother Eva Kasell. After receiving the shawl, Kasell told her, “This is a nice shawl, you can sell them to raise funds.” She knew about Pariyar’s organization. Pariyar says, “After that we brought many shawls from Nepal and started selling them. In the beginning, we brought in $3,000 to $4,000 from the sale of shawls. Later we garnered $28,000 from the sale of shawls. Then donors started approaching us.” [Pariyar travelled extensively and gave presentations about ADWAN. As she did, her organization gained more attention.] She says, “There was an increase in the number of individuals who wanted to help us. We used to send two to three newsletters per year. Gradually, we started getting many donors. We became capable of donating $80,000 to $90,000 a year. This year we succeeded in collecting even more to support the earthquake victims in Nepal.”

Pariyar works day and night for the rights of Dalits and to fight violence against women, but she has never taken even a dollar from the organization. Not only that, she uses her own money for her travel and food expenses during her work. In Nepal, the organization has four full-time staff and 15 staff in the field.

ADWAN Campaign

The campaign of ADWAN is focused on social, economic, political and educational uplift. Pariyar says, “We form women’s groups. We teach them how to read and write. When they know how to read and write, we give them $30 to $40 as seed money. According to their ability, every women’s group adds about 20 cents to 50 cents per person per month to that seed money. That way, the savings continue to increase. Then the members of the group can borrow money from the savings. The group itself is in charge of the money. It is up to them to decide how much interest they want to charge on loans. Now they have a savings of $1.5 million. Right now there are 64 women’s groups in seven districts in Nepal. Besides that, we have established a cooperative bank for women. We also have a microfinance program. If some women are interested in borrowing a large sum, our donors provide them money without a mortgage, or at minimum interest. Economic prosperity leads to social development.” Pariyar adds, “We have reached 5,000 women directly and our program has benefitted 10,000 women indirectly.”

Campaigning against domestic violence

Pariyar has received numerous awards and citations for her work, and in addition to her BA has an MA in International Development and Social Change from Clark University. (…)

Pariyar has worked not only for the women of Nepal, but also for women in the United States. In order to support and help the women suffering here, she founded an organization, Women for Cause. She says, “We have formed this organization to protect the rights of women suffering from domestic violence. We work to give justice to the affected women. For those with a weak financial condition we provide free services.”

Active in the field since 2004, Pariyar’s profession is domestic violence advocacy. In Boston she worked full-time for the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence, and worked part-time at Neponset Health Center. A resident of New Jersey, she currently works in the sector of domestic violence at CarePoint in the position of outreach educator.

Pariyar says she has plans to continue working in the sector of violence against women and Dalit rights in Nepal. She says, “I will go back to Nepal eventually. I will carry forward my ADWON. So far we have educated more than 13,000 children. And we are sending 97 youths for college education. Last year, 22 graduated. We also run sponsorship programs. We connect orphan children in Nepal with interested families in America. We also run trainings on agriculture, health, human rights, social justice and the like.”

She says, “In coordination with the European Union, we are doing various works in districts like Chitwan and Gorkha. Not only this, we are working together with the American Jewish World Service for the earthquake victims in Nepal. It has donated $50,000 to ADWAN. Using these funds, in Gorkha, the worst affected district, we are building 45 houses, 16 bathrooms, and 250 smokeless stoves. Our main program is in Gorkha, and other programs are in Baglung, Arghakhanchi, Sarlahi and Chiitwan.” With the support of EDWON, ADWAN has already built 114 houses and 56 bathrooms in Gorkha.

EDWON is a U.S.-based 501(c) 3 organization that is closely affiliated with ADWAN.

Pariyar says, “Those women who did not even leave their houses, are now actively engaged in different organizations, and they participate in discussions. Nothing is impossible. All we have to do is believe and keep trying.”

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