Interview with an activist: Durga Sob in Nepal

Durga Sob | Jan 30, 2018
Members of Intra Dalit Women’s Alliance set up by FEDO in Nepalgunj, Nepal.

Supporting the inclusion, respect, and empowerment of Dalit women

In Nepal, the caste system combined with gendered social norms often results in women facing double discrimination. Dalits, meaning “oppressed” in Sanskrit, belong to a community deemed so impure by the traditional Hindu scriptures that they are placed outside the hierarchical Hindu caste system and are commonly considered “untouchable”. Women from such marginalised caste backgrounds experience disproportionate violence, discrimination, and barriers to accessing resources. Less than 12% of Dalit girls are enrolled in secondary school, with almost half of Dalit women encountering violence despite very few cases being reported. The country’s decade-long civil war, spanning from 1996 to 2006, served only to worsen inequalities within the country.

Today, we celebrate the work of our longstanding partner Feminist Dalit Organisation (FEDO), who work to advocate on behalf of Dalit women in Nepal at the local, national, and international level. We sat down with FEDO founder and president Durga Sob to get to know her and her work.

Durga, why and when did you get involved with Dalit women’s struggle for equal rights in Nepal?

I’m from a remote part of the country, and as a girl, I faced many difficulties. Due to the caste system, I belonged to the Dalit community, and even today there is a very big problem around untouchability. I was not accepted by my school peers – when they touched me they thought they became impure. There are other issues in the Dalit community as well: domestic violence is common, as well as childhood marriage. My parents forced me to marry young.

When I came to Kathmandu in 1986, I saw that it was possible for women to be lawyers, doctors, and more. Even if it was just a few of them, there were examples of how women could do anything if they had the chance. But even in our urban capital, Dalits were poorly treated. 

I wanted to do something meaningful since I was a child, and my experiences and knowledge inspired me to act for Dalit women. Under very difficult circumstances, I started the organisation in 1994 to expand my reach beyond me alone. I didn’t know any donors; I had no access, no relations, no social inclusion. Caste issues were not prioritised amongst donors at that time either. It was a big challenge.

What does FEDO in Nepal do? Why is it needed and why do you feel it is important?

FEDO’s vision is a just and equitable society where Dalit women enjoy their rights and have opportunities for equity, development and participation. FEDO’s current priorities are 1) to ensure proportional representation of Dalit women in all aspects of socio- political life, 2) to improve Dalit women’s access to socio-economic resources, opportunities, and services, and 3) to empower Dalit women to fight against caste-based discrimination and gender-based violence. We have ongoing projects focused on a cross section of themes including food security, governance, education, justice, economic empowerment, and human rights.

Dalit women face twofold discrimination, both as women and as Dalits. Opportunities go either to Dalit men or to high caste women. Meaningful participation, equal access to services – none of this exists for Dalit women.  

What does feminism mean to you?

Despite our name, I didn’t know anything about feminism when we founded this organisation. FEDO is the gifted name by feminist and writer Robin Morgan, who came to Nepal in 1994 to conduct a training. I attended and though I found it difficult, I shared the issues of Dalit women. She identified me as a feminist and recommended the name FEDO!

I believe that women should fight for equality, and that those women who are most excluded and marginalised should be the proudest feminists. I don’t want to talk about equality: I want equity.

What has been your proudest moment at work?

If you go to the grassroots level, the women there are very much organised, fighting and shouting out for their rights. The fact that they are capacitated means that our foundations are strong! 

I am also proud that participation of Dalit women is increasing. We are now a well-recognised and established organisation at the local, federal and international levels.

Finally, I am proud that I have become a leader at three levels: as a woman, as a Dalit, and as a Dalit woman. 

FEDO and you are so good at what you do – how important is it to connect the local to the global and why?

Sometimes when I participate in global conferences, I feel as though something is lacking. The situation for women at the grassroots level is different, and sometimes these women’s realities are not represented in those fora. When I participate, I remember and project the issues and voices of rural, grassroots women. I believe that the global women’s rights movement has to recognise the place of rural women, and contextualise it based on location. Rural women in South Asia face different issues than rural women in Africa. We can’t generalise. 

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

I don’t have a typical day – there is no clear schedule! I have multiple events to attend at any given time – I have to make decisions on which ones to attend. Then, I respond to emails and to donors. Then, I’ll often need to go and give an interview. It varies a lot. There are some special days when women activists get together and share stories – I value that.

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