“When I started to write about Nepali women’s lack of rights to their own bodies and their land, people called me a ‘bad girl’,” says Lokshari.
“Now those same people ask me to teach their daughters to be like me.”
Standing on stage to collect her N-Peace Award, Lokshari Kunwar is one of 18 winners of UNDP’s flagship prize-giving initiative, fighting for women’s voices to be heard during and after conflict. The room is noticeably moved by her impassioned recount of her journey towards becoming a human rights defender.
Lokshari is one of few women journalists reporting on cases of armed conflict, gender-based violence, and human rights violations in Kailali district. In this area in the far west of Nepal, unequal land distribution is considered a driving factor behind the decade long conflict. As poor people’s livelihoods depend largely on land resources, the inequality in land ownership and accessibility can become a significant cause of tensions between marginalized groups and landowners. Women in particular have been disproportionately affected. Only around twenty percent of women have some form of legal ownership rights over land in Nepal, and instances of gender-based violence are high, despite (and arguably due to) a lack of formal reports.
With this year’s International Women’s Day theme focusing on innovation, it is important to remember that this buzzword does not just mean pushing for advancements in technology and science. Innovation also involves trying to approach things from different angles, understanding alternative perspectives, and disrupting “business-as-usual” attitudes. By considering innovative approaches, we might be able to arrive at inclusive, sustainable development - faster.
In high-pressured, conflict situations, peace is still largely considered a top-level, political or military process, spearheaded by men who in patriarchal societies are more likely to be leaders. This way of negotiating peace agreements falls somewhat short of addressing the broader, nuanced issues faced by people affected by conflict at the grassroots-level of society.
Women offer that different perspective
In cases like Somalia, for example, men elders reportedly focused on political power and settlement, while women focused on economic development, education, justice, and reconciliation — all critical elements of a sustained peace. Women are more likely to take a holistic approach and advocate for marginalized groups: the disabled, elderly, and those from different religious, cultural, or social backgrounds, as well as fellow women.
Lokshari’s career spanning 15 years has seen much success. She used the money that had been reserved for her dowry to set up the newspaper Morning Bell, and her work has been recognized by the Nepali Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens, and the Press Council Nepal.
But support from the community did not emerge at the beginning. For her activism and for the reports she published, she once lost all her front teeth after a particularly violent attack. One major challenge is that women are often not perceived to have the skills, knowledge, or social status needed to bring about change in post-conflict environments. Through speaking out, they also challenge entrenched gender norms, often at great personal risk.
In a recent survey, 66.7 percent of respondents reported that they had been increasingly invited to take part in peace processes after winning an N-Peace Award. By shining a spotlight on the achievements of particularly inspirational champions like Lokshari, initiatives such as N-Peace do much to help change the current narrative on women as peacebuilders. Through advocacy and capacity-building training, N-Peace strengthens their ability to continue fighting for what they believe in, and — importantly - encourages opportunities for them to advance women’s leadership.
Today, Lokshari has become a role model for other women in her community
“It makes me feel that all the struggles were worth it. This Award gives me a lot of positive energy,” she says.
Among other winners honored for their achievements are Dr Cynthia Maung, a maternal healthcare doctor working with refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border, Mary Akrami who is negotiating for issues affecting women to be addressed by Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, and Mahira Miyanji who is working to establish free education for women and girls in Lyari, Pakistan. Civil society organizations supporting the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda in Asia are also celebrated.
To find answers for accelerating more inclusive and sustainable peace in societies, it is women like these who we should increasingly be turning to.