Nepali Times Asian Paints
Lighting a lamp


MOTORCYCLE RESCUERS: Najbul Khan Nilam and colleague Mamitra Ale Magar of the women's group Muldhar in Udayapur, which works with women from disadvantaged groups in the district.
The oppressive afternoon heat and a curfew had kept people off the streets of Gaighat all day. Even the dogs have gone indoors. The silence is suddenly broken by the sound of an approaching motorcycle, it is a macho-looking 123 cc Enticer and riding it is a woman in T-shirt and jeans.

The sight would make one sit up and take notice even in Kathmandu. But here, in the middle of nowhere, in the capital of one of the most deprived districts of eastern Nepal, it is stunningly incongruous. Locals have got used to seeing Najbul Khan Nilam roar around town in one of her mercy missions to rescue battered women, take mothers to hospital or take trafficked children back to their families.

"The motorcycle is the message," explains Nilam, "it shows women what it means to be independent and empowered. But it is also practical to have a bigger bike because I have to sometimes carry two women on the back."

It is rare enough to find a woman activist like Nilam in rural Nepal and it is even more surprising that she is Muslim. She understood very early in her childhood what it meant to bear the triple burden of discrimination within her family, her community and society at large. When her father discouraged her from going to school, she enrolled in adult literacy classes and graduated.

Her brothers set fire to her books and kurta suruwal. "That is when I decided to only wear jeans," she says. Then she taught herself to drive a Vikram Tempo and worked on the Gaighat-Jaljale route, just to show other women that it was possible to earn a living that way.

Seeing victims of domestic violence in her community, women abandoned by their husbands, and seeing the trauma suffered by young girls rescued from traffickers Nilam decided to devote her life to help them. She set up Muldhar (Mainstream Women Service Centre) to address problems specific to women, Dalits, indigenous groups, Madhesis and Muslims in Udaypur district. In the corner of Muldhar's office, there are mattresses stacked high, for rescued women who have nowhere to go.

Muldhar gets about 20 cases per month, and many of them are women whose husbands have divorced them simply by saying "Talak" three times. Nilam, whose inspiration is maverick Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin, is determined to fight it. "We are in Nepal, and it is Nepali law that should prevail," she says, "and if men can divorce their wives by saying Talak then women should also be allowed to do so." It is such talk that earns Nilam death threats, but she says she has got used to them.

Nilam's phone rings. A ten-year-old girl has been raped by a 67-year-old man in an adjoining village. She rushes downstairs, guns her bike and is off in a cloud of dust. We find later she has brought the man to the police and started legal proceedings with help from a woman lawyer.

Last week, Nilam travelled to Kathmandu in an ambulance carrying a woman who had been severely burnt in the neck and body in an acid attack by her husband. She raised the money for the ambulance by persistently badgering officials. "She is one headstrong woman," said a district administration officer, "anyone else would have just given up."

Nilam is appalled at her district's high maternal mortality rate. Frequent highway blockades have cost many more lives. So her next project is to raise money to acquire a maternity ambulance that can rush women to the nearest good hospital in Dharan and have the equipment on board for delivery.

Says Nilam: "I'd like to drive the ambulance myself."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)