When Irada Prajuli Gautam was just 19 years old, she traveled from her comfortable home in western Nepal to the rural midwestern area of the country to work as a nurse for Save the Children. A young Nepali woman whose parents had always encouraged her to pursue education, Gautam was overwhelmed by the scarcity and economical depression she found in this mountainous, roadless region that was recently wracked by political violence.
Here the brutal realities of poverty are felt most harshly by girls, who are married at very young ages, often verbally, physically and sexually abused, and regularly trafficked for the sex trade or child labor. Many girls, even if they live with stable families, have such overwhelming workloads at home that they cannot attend school. “I saw lots of girls who were not happy being a daughter,” Gautam says. “They faced discrimination on a family level and society at large. They were not getting equal love and care as boys.”
Gautam spent the next 10 years working in this area as a nurse before deciding that she could do more as a leader of a grassroots organization that would focus on changing the societal norms. “I saw misery and unbalance among the girls,” she says. “I felt like I had to give them a voice.”
In 1999, Gautam founded Aawaaj, which means “breaking the silence.” It is a nongovernmental and nonprofit organization that has helped hundreds of rural Nepali girls break out of poverty by giving them an education, both traditional and vocational. Among many of its noteworthy programs, Aawaaj offers scholarships to girls, provides community training on curtailing violence, and engages families in open discussions, counseling, and mediations to improve the lives of the girls, starting at home.
The key to Aawaaj’s efforts is to help these rural communities, long steeped in tradition and silence about violence, recognize how these behaviors and attitudes are harmful to girls and women. For instance, Aawaaj pays a lot of home visits to the girls who receive scholarships. “This provides direct benefit for the girls, and it’s an easy way to interact with the families,” Gautam says. “They will listen to us. It’s a good way of involving the family members. We talk to their siblings, their brothers. We ask how the brothers can help the girls, how brothers could reduce the workload at home.” The boys, who may start viewing their sisters as important members of the family and community, then take these messages back to school and eventually into their life partnerships.
“We do lots of programs on the community level,” Gautam says, adding that there is plenty of work still to be done. “Because even when the girls do go to school, there is teasing and harassment. There is no respite for the girls, and that has to be stopped. I want to create a girl-friendly environment.”
Working with BICE International, over the past decade Guatam has built a sturdy network of local organizations, counselors, researchers, advocates and shelters—all of whom know Aawaaj and are eager to help the organization’s well-known president and founder who has made this cause her life.
Just this year, Gautam was nominated for an N Peace Award: “Despite the challenges of working on addressing violations of human rights of women and children and working on equality in a deeply rooted patriarchal environment, Irada has been able to establish herself as an effective and well liked and respected leader,” it is written on her N Peace biography. “She holds a great reputation for her hard work and commitment for bringing positive changes in the society. Her personal warmth with her colleagues and staff is appreciated and she has been able to foster good working relations with government authorities and other NGOs, as she believes that real change and gender equality will be achieved only through collaboration.”
Gautam forever seeks out the girls who need help the most: those whose parents are not educated, those who have suddenly disappeared.
One such girl she mentions is Sunita, a girl who loved studying but came close to dropping out because she had to care for younger siblings. “Her home environment was not helping,” Gautam says. Sunita’s local Child-Friendly Space (a safe haven for children in difficult areas), a partner with Aawaaj, suggested she apply for an Aawaaj scholarship.
Sunita is today studying management full time. “Before I used to scare in taking any action, but now I don’t fear, I have build my self confidence,” she writes. “Now I am able to share that knowledge with other children of the village, I want to express my gratitude to Aawaaj which has tremendously supported bringing me in this position.”
Since her arrival in rural midwestern Nepal years ago, Guatam says attitudes may finally be slowly changing. Most apparent, she says, are the little girls’ dreams. “When I talk with the girls nowadays, I ask them, ‘What do you like to do with your life?’ They say, ‘Oh I’d like to work in a social organization or be a school teacher or be a doctor.’ ” Gautam laughs. “When I hear this, I’m very happy.”
Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.