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Story and Photos by Vicki Clarke | Director of Philanthropy-Central Region | Heifer Nepal
Last week, in over 100 countries, many celebrated International Women's Day (IWD)−a celebration of the economic, social and political achievements of women past, present, and future. But for many, the day went unnoticed. Millions of women in the developing world continued their daily work−gathering firewood and water, walking long distances to the market, caring for their children, and harvesting and cooking what little food they had for their families.
In the villages near Shantikunja, in the Chitwan district of Nepal, donors on a field visit to Nepal found hundreds of women mobilized for IWD over the past two weeks. Walking the dusty roads in and through villages in their beautiful pink and red saris, these women marched together, hand in hand, celebrating their accomplishments and calling other women and men to join them. With signs that read "Women are the key to community development," these women have a deep belief in the 12 Cornerstones for Just and Sustainable Development, even though 11 years has passed since they first received training and the gift of goats. They live and breathe the Cornerstone values.
This commitment to community development, and a shared belief in the power of a strong community, provides an ideal foundation for lasting change. As the donors noticed during our discussions with community members, the self-help groups (SHGs) provided a foundation for building social capital while at the same time sparking entrepreneurship and new business development. The women in Shantikunja were better farmers because of the project, but their families did better too. They were able to pull together to form new enterprises, and they now lead the Shantikunja Social Entrepreneurs Women's Cooperative. Now with 452 members across 19 SHGs, the cooperative is a hub of business activity while providing a platform of social and community engagement (tree planting, polio vaccinations, eye and health clinics, road building, school scholarships, family counselors and prevention of violence against women). According to the group's business plan, which we were eager to review with the help of a translator, the cooperative plans to reach 1,500 members and help them become independent and self-reliant through business expansion, access to capital, leadership development and accountability.
The development model used in Shantikunja is a successful one, nearly 140,000 more families will benefit from this goat value chain project. The progress the Nepal team has made over the past six months is remarkable. The program was launched just over one year ago and is well on its way with very fast progress. More than 20,000 original families have been identified as the base of the project and thousands more will join them through an expedited Passing on the Gift (POG) process. With the belief that training and education yields rapid and visible benefits, the project builds on a commitment to social capital to ensure long term engagement. The Cornerstone trainings provide cohesion for the groups and guide their movement to scale up. Organizing into a cooperative with scale, they already have the attention of local officials, banks, credit sources, additional training sources and traders.
The focus on the goat value chain, well-documented and analyzed by Heifer Nepal staff, indicates that large gains can be made by these cooperatives with proper training on breeds, feeding and better animal management. And, while the project has the potential to make dramatic changes in the import ratio of live goats to Nepal, and we believe it will, there is a tremendous opportunity to shift the balance of power and change the national discussion through these women's cooperatives. But there are still challenges of trust and commitment. It will take time, as we learned from other project communities, but these women are strong and confident.
What happens when you build on the courage and resourcefulness of women? You can see it in the look of these Nepali women as they marched down the road−the look of hope and self-confidence on their faces. Those are the faces of women who are determined to succeed; determined to improve their families and communities. In the hands of women, the simple gifts of livestock and training are turning into nutrition, clean water, toilets, biogas stoves, literacy, education, sustainable incomes, small businesses, health care, better homes, more trees and clean environments.