The only professional women many girls in rural Nepal see are health workers and teachers. Therefore it nearly always sparks conversations when members of our project field teams are women engineers and scientists. You can just see the expanded future possibilities ticking away behind girls’ eyes. Recently I was part of a team for the inception of the Community Irrigation Project in Nepal. One of the specific actions in the Gender Action Plan of this project is to improve the Department of Local Development and Agricultural Roads (DOLIDAR)'s gender balance and provide good technical role models to women in project areas. The target of one third of the 12 project engineers being women has already been met. Since there is a common perception that female engineers are very difficult to find, I talked to Engineer Nisha Tripathee. Nisha is 27 and originally from Pokhara. Married for 7 months to a civil engineer also doing irrigation (under a Swiss funded project), her husband and his family are happy she has a high profile engineering role and support her career. Following graduation from the engineering college of Tribhuvan University, her initial career was not what she imagined however. Employed as an engineering consultant, she found herself allocated tasks with no relevance to engineering, such as organizing judicial services workshops. Dissatisfied, she resigned and went to work for an international NGO doing field based engineering supervision of small irrigation projects. The work was technically challenging, and also physically – some sites in Achham District took four days walking to reach.
This project based experience gave Nisha the right skills to sit and pass the public service commission entrance examination, and led to her current, Kathmandu-based position for DOLIDAR. Government targets to hire more female technical staff made it relatively easy for her to enter the public service, she says. The same kind of targets also exist for low caste and ethnic minority technical staff who are currently underrepresented in government service. This position also fits better with her current lifestyle – over the next few years she will probably have children, and working for the government, she will be entitled to maternity leave, enabling her to keep her career.
DOLIDAR currently has 7 woman engineers (out of 1000). Only one is currently posted outside Kathmandu and it’s because her husband is working there. The government does consider such family situations and Nisha considers it is a good practice. She takes her job very seriously, commenting that she does not want the men to think she is only there due to a quota. However sometimes it is more challenging for her. She cited the many after work social occasions she is not invited to, missing out on work information and decisions made informally ‘over drinks’. This contrasts sharply with her experience working for the international NGO, where colleagues were much closer and socialized together.
Nisha didn’t always want to be an engineer. As a teenager she heard about computers (there were none in her school) and thought it would be good to train in that area. By the time she sat the university entrance exam though, there already seemed to be many qualified computer specialists so her father suggested she study civil engineering, given that her grades were high and there seemed to be high demand for engineers. In her graduating class there were 14 female engineers out of 144. Since working as an engineer she has encouraged two other female friends to become engineers. Hopefully her work on the Nepal Community Irrigation Project, along with the three field based female engineers, will encourage more women to work in this field.