Leading women's empowerment and rural development in Nepal
Jit Kumari is a role model for her audacious voyage to economic and social prosperity.
Some stones require polish to glitter in the sun, others don’t. The latter are not many. We met one of them during our recent field visit to Gulariya in Bardiya district, western Nepal.
ADB is currently supporting the implementation of labor- and water-saving dry direct seeding rice (DSR) technology in several countries. Nepal is one of them. Our objective was to gather first-hand information and farmers’ perspective on the use of DSR.
We arrived in Gulariya at 10 am on a shiny morning, with the usual South Asian sun hovering over our head. But even shinier was the welcoming smile of Jit Kumari Yogi, a 57-year-old farmer with 5 children. She was just not one of the participants but the most important one from Gulariya, where Jit Kumari was leading the project from the front.
Jit Kumari has also been leading her family from the front. She got married at 16 to a widower with two children from his first wife. Jit Kumari had three kids of her own, as she became a widow at only 24, with huge responsibilities and very little resources to shoulder them. At the sudden demise of the only breadwinner of the family she felt high and dry, and cried her heart out – but not for long.
The only asset her husband left behind was 1.5 hectare of land traditionally used for paddy production. Jit Kumari, who until then had only used small tools to cook in the kitchen, had to take the spade in hand and work in the field to provide the bare minimum to her five children.
Realizing that paddy production would not be enough to sustain her family, she diversified into fruits and vegetables production. Such diversification spurred Jit Kumari to actively participate in market and financial dealings with others.
Like most girls of her time in Nepal, Jit Kumari was raised within a defined social sphere with limited physical mobility, let alone participation in market. It was therefore nothing less than a battle for her to cope with the existing system of communication and market activities, which as of today are not friendly to women.
Jit Kumari was not ready for this, and did not expect to get involved. In her own words, “I wanted to be a good wife and a mother, not the household head. But what is allotted cannot be blotted. So, I decided not to shy away from my new responsibility. I remained mother for my children as well as becoming their new father.”
In those difficult days, few people extended a helping hand to Jit Kumari, and many took advantage of her illiteracy. To change this, she educated herself in basic literacy and numerical knowledge by participating in the government's adult literacy program.
Jit Kumari was pointed at and slandered by her neighbors for her increased physical mobility and participation in economic activities. She defied all these slurs and remained stubborn to continue her audacious voyage to economic and social prosperity.
It was not easy for Jit Kumari to provide for her children, yet she did not compromise on their education and sent them to school instead of involving them in economic activities. Today, her eldest son is working for Government of Nepal as a health assistant, the second is a primary school teacher, and the youngest is employed as a junior engineer by a local government department.
Jit Kumari's struggle earned her dignity and the trust of locals. Twelve years ago she was entrusted with the responsibility of managing the local Community Forest User Group (CFUG) as its chairperson. The CFUG manages 1500 hectares of forest in a flood- and erosion-prone area. Jit Kumari was also bestowed with membership in the national community forest federation as a recognition of her CFUG leadership.
In 2012, Jit Kumari established the Women’s Social Entrepreneurs Cooperative (WSEC), with 57 members organized into three Self Help Groups (SHGs). In six years the WSEC grew to 528 members and 34 SHGs under her leadership in 6 years.
The WSEC gathers weekly savings from members and provides credit to its members. It also collects milk from individual dairy farmers of the locality for wholesale to institutional buyers. It is also involved in retailing of livestock feed, seed, and chemical fertilizer.
Although the WSEC works to promote the rights of women and to increase awareness about health and sanitation, Jit Kumari decided not to rely on volunteers. Instead she employed three professional staff members to run this cooperative following market principles, as this this is how cooperatives are run in Europe.
Jit Kumari transcended her time and space to introduce a new way to manage a women’s cooperative. The annual turnover of the WSEC is currently over NRs15 million (almost $130,000), and growing every year.
As a visionary person, it did not take long for Jit Kumari to comprehend the potential benefits of DSR. She took the lead in piloting this new technology in her field, and many other farmers from the same area followed her.
Jit Kumari’s struggle made her a role model in Gulariya. Many women see hope in their lives thanks to her. Be it agricultural mechanization or gender empowerment, people like Jit Kumari change the world silently and covertly.