Life for women in Nepal can be very hard. Raising children, running the household, working in the fields, and managing the family's needs leave little time or energy for women to do anything for themselves. And even though they run the house, most women still depend on male family members for financial stability. It's a pattern that leaves too many women unable to escape abusive circumstances—let alone pursue their passions.
But when you come to Mankhu, a small village in Dhading district in Nepal, you will quickly notice that many things are different here.
Mankhu is home to a unique program for women's empowerment called "Her Farm." The name captures the simplicity of the place's entire concept: It's a farm, and it's hers. A group of 30 people, mainly women and children, lives there together in a community, and the women own the land they live on—a very uncommon arrangement in Nepal. Rather than trying to empower women through training and skills in traditionally female areas of occupation like handicrafts or food production, the farm has quite a different approach. With safe ground to stand on, the women are in a position to pursue whatever it is they dream of. For some, this means learning how to drive a motorbike, or perhaps learning the English language. For others, it means the chance to study film and photography. (All the photos in this piece are taken by the women of Her Farm.)
"Economic dependency on male family members is one of the biggest problems women in Nepal face," explains Sunita Sharma, founder of Her Farm. "Women seldom own land here, so they always live by the grace of their male family members." Domestic violence is still prevalent in Nepal: In a survey from the Ministry of Health and Population of Nepal in 2011, 28 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 said they had experienced violence from their partner at least once in their partnership, while 14 percent had experienced it in the last year. The country ranks 115th in the Gender Inequality Index by the United Nations Development Program, and child marriage remains a problem.
If a woman has to fear being kicked out of her home and ending up on the street with her children, just for speaking up against an abusive husband, father, or brother, she is much more likely to stay and endure it. The government of Nepal has recognized that it's important to support female ownership of land, which is why, since 2007, the government has offered significant tax cuts if land is registered in a woman's name, but little progress has resulted: Female landownership increased by only 8 percent between 2001 and 2011 when the last census took place. In the central region, where the capital of Kathmandu is located, female ownership accounts for 7.4 percent of land, while in the far western region it is only 0.7 percent.
Thus, Her Farm offers a way out.
Sharma founded Her Farm in 2011. She has a very good understanding of the difficult situation among Nepalese women, in part because this is her own story as well. Ten years ago, Sharma escaped an abusive relationship with her husband and managed to raise her two children by herself with the support of her second husband. Now she wants to give this chance to other women as well. The people who live and work at Her Farm come from very different backgrounds. Some are from the village and chose to stay with Sunita and her community, some have escaped from abusive relationships, and some come from mental-health facilities or from broken homes. For all of them, Her Farm is a safe haven, a place where they can settle and find the strength to go forward.
Only 18.3 percent of legislators, senior officials, or managers in Nepal are female, so there are very few national role models for girls to look up to. At Her Farm, education plays a very important role in daily life. All children attend the village school. Every morning, many kids from the village gather to do their homework together. After the kids are off, the daily farm work starts. "Many people in Nepal believe that women cannot run a farm by themselves, but we are the proof that that is not true!" Sunita says with pride. "A woman can do everything a man can do, and just as good."
As the project evolves, and the women of Her Farm develop their various interests, new avenues for expression emerge. Some of the women have used photography and film to document their daily lives, telling women's stories from their own community. Recently, Her Farm established an FM radio station that will broadcast interviews and stories gathered by the women. Two women from the community are training as community reporters. And they've built an emergency center at the farm so they can react more adequately to disasters in the future—another earthquake, say, like the Gorkha earthquake, which rocked Nepal in 2015.
"We cannot tell people how to live," Sharma says, "but we can show that [life] can also work in a different way. Here in Mankhu, people have a good example that women can lead and be independent; they just have to open their eyes and see what the women have done here."