Investing in Women’s Education Pays Off

A USAID-supported literacy program from the 1990s changed one Nepali woman’s life, paving the way for her political career

Nov 14, 2017 · 4 min read
Suntali Thapa Magar reviews her writing in front of her peers during a 2013 World Education Nepal basic literacy session concerning microfinance. / World Education Nepal

In May, Nepal held its first local elections in 20 years. In that time, a lot has changed, especially for Harka Maya, a woman who was elected deputy mayor of Makawanpurgadhi, a municipality in Makwanpur district.

Twenty years ago, Harka Maya would have thought such a feat was impossible. Like her Tamang peers, who are a marginalized group in Nepal, Harka Maya never attended school. At that time, school was only for those who could afford it. And even among such families, sons’ education was prioritized.

Although Harka Maya rarely encountered a literate person when she was growing up, her desire to learn burned bright during her childhood and into adulthood.

Adult women of all ages practice reading sentences and comprehending them using literacy materials produced by World Education Nepal. / World Education Nepal

In 1995, USAID and partner World Education launched a program to teach women between the ages of 15 and 49 to read and write. Two years later, then 42-year-old Harka Maya gained basic literacy skills through six months in the program’s classes. When she graduated, Harka Maya wanted to help other women gain economic freedom through improved literacy, but she did not know how.

“At the time, women had no economic and property rights, and I wanted to advocate for women to have those rights. I wanted to make a change, but found it a challenging task.” — Harka Maya

Harka Maya and her fellow classmates started a women’s savings group, and as the number of group members increased, she transformed the group into the NGO she runs today: Gramin Mahila Swabalamban Sanstha.

Harka Maya, deputy mayor of Makawanpurgadhi, with Helen Sherpa, World Education Nepal country director. / World Education Nepal

Gramin Mahila Swabalamban Sanstha’s first project was helping develop the Women’s Economic Empowerment and Literacy program to increase women’s financial and literacy skills. With World Education and other NGOs’ support, Harka Maya expanded the cooperative to reach 24 women’s groups in Makwanpur’s Gadi and Aambhanjing communities.

Harka Maya then turned her sights to her other passions: helping Tamang women find jobs and fight problems such as child labor and trafficking in her home district of Makwanpur. Through her steadfast determination to improve the lives of those around her, she prevailed despite personal challenges, including the deaths of her three children and Nepal’s 10-year civil war.

“I wanted to eliminate misconceptions and traditions that were harmful to women and help my community to change.” — Harka Maya

Over the next nine years, she worked with Makwanpur’s District Education Office, USAID and World Education to improve trafficking prevention systems in Makwanpur. Her experience in capacity building, advocacy and education training ultimately gave her the confidence to do something she never imagined — run for public office.

“For the last nine years, I stuck with my NGO work and was not politically active,” she said.

She realized that she had to change the system if she wanted to make a difference.

Older women participate in non-formal education classes held by World Education Nepal in 2011 in Resunga Municipality, a Gulmi District community within Nepal’s Western Development Region. / World Education Nepal

Earlier this year, Harka Maya kicked off her political campaign with a platform centered on empowering her community — especially women — through education, and it worked. In May, she was elected as the first deputy mayor.

“As a deputy mayor, I have a role on the judiciary committee in the local government, but want to try my best to get women involved to strengthen their economic and political rights.” — Harka Maya

In her new position, she aims to work with NGOs and the government to launch integrated health, education and infrastructure programs.

When Harka Maya thinks about the next 20 years, she hopes to “provide women the capacity to take leadership roles in different social and political fields,” so they can build the future they want to see.

For Harka Maya, there is much to celebrate. Her victory is also a reminder that without USAID and the American people’s ongoing and long-term commitment to education, she would not have had the foundation to create advancement opportunities for her community and become the person she is today.

About the Authors

Christina Djossa is a former Princeton in Asia Fellow at World Education Nepal working on communications and media strategy. Helen Sherpa is the Country Director of World Education Nepal.

U.S. Agency for International Development

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