Advocate Mandira Sharma's watchword has always been freedom. It began in her conservative Brahmin family in Baglung with a patriarch father who ruled with absolute control.
"I had no freedom at all. I couldn't wear what I liked, and couldn't even do my hair the way I liked," recalls Mandira.
To her father's dismay, her best friend was a dalit, who was strictly forbidden from entering the Poudel household. Mandira didn't let that stop her from always accompanying her friend outside her home, ignoring criticism from her high caste community. She rebelled, and hasn't stopped rebelling.
"Of course, there was a limit to what I could do, no matter how independent I wanted to be," says Mandira. "I was passionate about becoming a nurse but my family still regard it as a profession for ruined women." Her mother encouraged her not to lose hope, and inspired her to study law in Pokhara.
But Mandira's father wanted her married off. She agreed, but on the condition that she would only marry a man of her choice. After sifting through several proposals, she came across a law graduate in Kathmandu. "Without a second thought, I decided to marry this stranger since it meant a chance to finally break free."
As soon as she got to Kathmandu, she changed her wardrobe from traditional kurta suruwals to jeans and T-shirts, and immediately joined the Law Campus at Kamaladi. Mandira graduated with the highest marks among her female classmates and started the Advocacy Forum.
None of the disparaging lawyer jokes apply to Mandira. She takes her life's mission to be an advocate for justice and freedom seriously. She believes and acts on the principle that a real lawyer's job is to fight injustice on behalf of those who have neither money nor power. Mandira has taken on the state apparatus, often taking legal action against the police for disregarding the rights of detainees.
As the country's rights situation deteriorates, Mandira's more busy than ever. In the last few years, she has sued more than 12 police officers for involvement in torturing detainees and holding them without trial. "I want people to have access to fair justice and respect," she says.
More than anything else, what makes Mandira happiest today is to see the pride in her father's eyes when he looks at his daughter. (Naresh Newar)