Interview with Punam Thapa, a care leaver from SOS Children
NEPAL – March 8 2022

Celebrating International Women's Day 2022

Interview by Magdalena Sikorska; Photos provided by Punam Thapa

Punam, a care leaver from Nepal, talks about the situation of women in her country and the impact of gender inequality on the mental health of girls.

Punam Thapa, 23, is a Nepali care leaver and a member of the International Youth Coalition. She recently graduated from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu and started a career in medicine.

How is International Women’s Day celebrated in Nepal?

Nepali NGOs—like SOS Children's Villages in Nepal—organize programs to motivate and inspire women and celebrate their achievements. Women take this opportunity to protest and speak up because gender inequality is a backward thing that has been here for ages. In a country like Nepal, International Women’s Day plays an important role because women get to voice things that are usually suppressed by society or that they suppress in their heads. It is pretty much the one day when women get to speak out.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

Celebrating and encouraging women to pursue their goals is a positive thing. But this day also makes me realize that women are still suppressed in this patriarchal world. We don’t celebrate Men’s Day, do we? Why do we need to validate our presence this way? Why do we need this day to fight for the rights that should come to us naturally? It is clear that women are still seen as secondary to men and, in daily life, it goes unnoticed. I see people giving speeches about equality, but when there is a female victim and people need to be there for her, no one takes the stand.

There is a lot to embrace about being a woman, but when we start thinking about problems, there are many. Despite having grown up to be independent, with the support of a family that lifted me up and gave me opportunities, I still sometimes feel inadequate because of society's standards. I feel like I can’t take care of myself when I walk alone at night. When I see a group of men, I have to be afraid. There are days when we feel low just because we are women. I can talk about my problems, but in my country, especially in remote areas, there are many women whose voices are always suppressed.

One important thing I do on March 8 is remember the women who have had an impact on my life. The first one is my biological mother, who is no longer with me. Together with my SOS mother, they are the most important women in my life. I also think about my five amazing sisters. They grew up in difficult circumstances and live every day off their own hard work, look after their children, take care of cattle and work on farms. When I visit my sisters, I see how resilient women in rural areas are. They are the real power of our country.

What are the biggest challenges women in Nepal face right now?

Gender inequality is a major problem. At the pediatric ward where I currently work, we recently had a very difficult labor. The parents told us the baby is a son, so we must make him survive at any cost. We knew that they wouldn’t say that if it was a girl. There are many illegal abortions of female fetuses. I get very emotional thinking about how discrimination starts from the very beginning.

Women in Nepal face gender-based violence, child marriage and human trafficking. Another thing is the dowry system. In the Hindu tradition, after marriage, a woman has to go live in her husband's house and bring a lot of money with her. We often hear about women who couldn’t afford a dowry getting hurt or even murdered by men’s families. There are still cases of women being beaten because of witchcraft accusations. Families of rapists often pay the victims’ families to silence them. Even a process as natural as menstruation is stigmatized. These are basic things that keep our nation from progressing.

It makes me think that it will take decades or even centuries before a woman will be considered a citizen, a human. How can we feel empowered? It is a constant battle between us and society.

What can caregivers do to empower girls as they grow up?

Always listen. Without judgement or presumptions, just listen to what she has to say. At any age and any stage of her life: be it the time she is menstruating, she needs career counseling, she wants to talk about her boyfriend or she accidentally gets pregnant. Hearing her out is one thing that will solve half of the problems.

I have always felt this way with my older brother. We came to the SOS Children’s Village in Surkhet together and, luckily, we were in the same family home. In my happiness, in my weak points, he has been the one who pushed me and never let me down. I am very privileged because there are people out there who have literally no one to talk to.

I don’t believe in big solutions to problems like gender inequality. It is the small things that will make a big difference. If I get supported by my family and another woman by hers, this is how our country will progress. The solution is actually not that tough—you just have to start with your sister, daughter, mother or wife. Be there for her when she is vulnerable or hurting. Take a stand for her when she needs it. This is how development works.

Can you think of any specific ways to help young women with care experience enter adulthood?

When we transition from SOS Children’s Villages to youth care facilities or move to bigger cities or abroad, these are the crucial times when we need career counseling and emotional support. There will be times when we will need suggestions or doubt our capabilities. Our guardians should talk to us about what we can expect. Our families should appreciate us, motivate us and tell us that we are doing a good job time and again. Nothing is greater than family in this world.

You specialize in promoting mental health for young people. What are the threats to the mental health of girls and young women?

“Being a woman, why do you have to party late at night? Being a woman, why do you go with a man? Being a woman, why do you lose your virginity before marriage?” These are sentences often repeated in our society.

Girls are judged differently than boys for the same things, and it affects their mental health. They are always suppressed and never a priority. They receive this stimulus from society from an early age and it gets in their heads. What’s more, there is a difference in the quality of healthcare females receive, even when they suffer from the same physical or mental diseases as men. “Being a woman, why does she need treatment?”

Mental illness is still taboo in Nepal and around the world. But, in reality, physical and mental health always go hand in hand. Talking about mental health is a step towards normalizing it. I really want young people to open up about their problems, but if we don’t initiate these conversations, it's not going to happen. Young women won’t talk about issues that make them suffer, like relationships and sexuality, knowing that there is a social stigma around them. They need to feel that they have people they can turn to without being judged.

On International Women's Day, what is the most important message you want to send to young women and girls thinking about their careers?

Start from you. Always be there to defy social standards if they are not right. Take a stand for yourself. Have a vision of what you really want in life. It doesn’t have to be about money or success but about being a good, kind, happy human. We should aspire to be better humans every single day. We should be growing kinder day by day because this is what our world needs right now. We might not affect many people, but at least we will affect our lives and our families.

Kudos to all the women who are trying. One woman for another—this is how change is going to come.

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