A single mother who was left to bring up a son all by herself when her husband abandoned her, left penniless and having to deal with a harsh and judgmental society, Sharmila Thapa could have easily succumbed to the damages of life. Instead she decided to work on a movement to help women in the same situation as her so that they would never have to face the struggles and scars she went through.
Now, the mother of two, a biological son and an adopted daughter, Sharmila is the Founder and President of Samida Women Development Forum which is a network and an extended family to many single mothers. Using various modes of fund raising such as rallies and entertainment programs along with individual donors, Thapa today runs a fearless organisation that encourages women to speak up about domestic violence while making them feel protected and loved and working on their self confidence. SWDF was officially established in January 2011. The forum manages an array of roles amongst which are giving scholarships to 86 children of single mothers and carrying out counselling and advocacy campaigns for the rights of single mothers.
Her struggles and life situation where she went for days without having someone to call for help and survived on biscuits and water because she did not have a stable income changed when she decided to stand up for herself and for the rights of other women in her position. Looking for help, she discovered that there were not many organizations that supported single mothers like her. She decided to take things into her own hands and opened SWDF.
Today, Sharmila is a proud NPEACE Award holder given to her by UNDP. This recognition has given her energy and purpose to grow her organisation. Teaching women how to find their destiny despite adversities, she hopes that in future women in Nepal will have a zero tolerance towards domestic violence.
When speaking to her about her challenge in becoming the woman she is today, she shed light on very important issues that still plague much of Nepali society. “As a single mother people tend to perceive you differently” she states, talking about the lack of freedom for single women. She recalls incidents when people have misjudged her organisation, often believing that it was only for donations. Additionally, she mentions how sometimes being a single mother had other challenges, for instance repeatedly being asked for the father’s identity for her son’s school admissions and citizenships, a problem many women constantly have to deal with in the country.
As her support grows and she changes the society one step at a time, she hopes that in the future gender equality in Nepal is taken seriously. She gravely addresses the importance of not judging a woman by her appearance or her past and allowing her equal opportunity to live a successful life.
She emphasises on the power of women and how much they are able to control and contribute to the society if they believe in themselves. “Instead of segregating yourself and thinking that you cannot do it because you are a certain gender, you need to believe in your ability and potential. Once you set your mind to it, anything is possible,” she says with conviction. She hopes that in the future people are able to see single mothers for who they are, mothers who care for their children and want them to be better.
During the earthquake it was a difficult for every person. Sharmila and her team worked to help rebuild, going to the extent of taking out dead bodies and clearing out debris. “I do not like to define my role according to my gender and teach the women in my organisation to do the same” she says. This statement is a clear indication of what Sharmila and Samida Women Development Forum stand for. Women who are undeterred by difficult situations, they did not confine to the strict stereotypical ideologies of what a woman should or should not do. The empowerment of the organisation has given single mothers who were once thought to be victims in society, the ability to help and support themselves and people around them.
Women and men from very early in their lives are treated differently, where one is looked upon as the heir of the family, and the other who gives birth to this heir is treated like a commodity. A proud mother of a 17 year old son, Sharmila says, “The word wife has a very negative status in our community so instead of calling her that, you should call her your best friend. Tthis will make you treat them like equals and you can move forward as partners.”
Lastly, looking forward to helping more women in the future Sharmila Thapa and her organisation’s movement has definitely proved to be successful as more women are feeling empowered to leave toxic relations and start life afresh despite the society.