How One Woman Is Challenging The Status Quo In International Aid

Photo by Pooja Pant// Rita Thapa is devoted to challenging the status quo in Nepal.

– By Marlena Hartz

All the markers of a comfortable future were there.

Rita Thapa, then a rising official in the United Nations, had been granted a full scholarship to study at a university in New Zealand. She had just finished speaking on a panel at the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing. (The same conference where Hillary Clinton famously declared “women’s rights are human rights.”)

To prepare for her panel, Thapa collected her thoughts on future of international aid. It left her more convinced than ever—the system was broken. When Thapa returned from Beijing, she made three decisions. She quit her job. She declined her scholarship. And she cleared out a room in her house to start what is now known as Tewa.

“Deep inside my heart, I knew that I just could not be part of the aid structure, and I just had to do something,” said Thapa.

Twenty-two years later, Tewa is a well-established nonprofit in Nepal, driving out discrimination and injustice through women’s empowerment programs. Unlike most nonprofits in the country, Tewa, which means support in Nepali, strives to collect more than half of its funds from within Nepal. It’s a radical vision for a nonprofit in one of the world’s poorest countries, where the average annual income per person is $2,520 and foreign aid in 2015 totaled $1.2 billion.

Challenging the status quo

Thapa’s decision to launch Tewa may have appeared abrupt. But it was in fact the culmination of a lifetime of events, starting with Thapa’s forced marriage to an older man at the age of 18. Her husband later died in an accident, and Thapa was plunged into the harsh world of Hindu widow rituals, which range from wearing all white to verbal abuse to solitary confinement.

“If a privileged woman like me in Nepal was suffering so many discriminations and backlashes on account of being a ‘Hindu widow’—quote unquote, that’s what everybody thinks I am—I felt that … I had really no choice,” said Thapa of her decision to start Tewa.

Thapa’s struggles as a widow were followed by a period of professional struggles, also central to Tewa’s conception. After her husband died, Thapa went into the field of development to support her children and moved into a house her parents owned in Kathmandu.

To get Tewa off the ground, Thapa asked her girlfriends to sell their best jewelry and donate the proceeds to her fledgling operation. She recruited affluent housewives and influential women in Nepal to become Tewa advisors and support the organization through membership dues. She referred to herself not as an executive director, but as a coordinator, eschewing the hierarchical structures that she’d seen thwart progress at large INGOs.

Thapa envisioned an organization that would be free from the flaws that she’d encountered again and again in her early career. In most of her positions prior to Tewa, she was managed by white, male foreigners who she said disregarded the advice of their Nepali staff at the peril of their programs. The more time she spent in aid and development, the more concerned she became. At a refugee camp in Nepal, she found out that men in charge were distributing extra supplies to women who lived at the camps in exchange for sexual favors. In the grantmaking sphere, she saw nonprofit leaders crafting proposals to cater to the whims of funders; others received grants only if they promised a kickback to the granting officer.

“I could not be part of a system which was contradictory to the very thing it was offering to do. Working to eradicate poverty and injustices from within structures where poverty and injustices were reproduced on a daily basis seemed a little short of schizophrenic to me,” Thapa wrote in her essay, “Feminist Action in Aidland: Experiences in Nepal.”

“I felt development had to be done differently,” she wrote, “with more heart, respect and compassion.”

Empowering women through grantmaking

Tewa has done things differently. To date, the organization has awarded nearly 600 grants, typically to registered women’s organizations in remote Nepalese communities.

“That group takes the money for whatever their greatest need is. It may be a beekeeping project that they want to do with the community women. It may be a goat-raising project. It may be a vegetable-farming project. But basically, they are building a small infrastructure for income generation or capacity building projects,” Thapa said.

The value of Tewa’s locally rooted approach crystallized in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015.

The quake killed nearly 9,000 people, destroyed more than 500,000 homes, and left some 2.8 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Major aid organizations scrambled to reach the hardest-hit communities. But Tewa reached 120 communities in 15 affected-districts within 70 days, often delivering the first wave of relief in struggling remote villages.

While many INGOs struggled with bureaucratic trappings, Tewa mobilized a group of 22 Nepali women named “Shadow Barefoot Volunteers.” They carried cash to earthquake-devastated communities and gave it away to survivors in $100 batches.

“We were told it would not be secure, but we felt whenever disaster strikes suddenly people become victims. But people are like you and I. Yes, we’d be in shock for a little while, but how would we lose our common sense and our integrity and whatever we hold dear? So, we just trusted that they knew what they most needed for themselves,” Thapa said.

Direct giving programs that follow similar models to Tewa’s have also yielded promising results. MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, in partnership with an American charity, GiveDirectly, found that people don’t waste direct cash grants on cigarettes and booze. They use it to buy better food for their families, invest in their children’s education and start profitable businesses.

Institute of Cultural Affairs, another nonprofit in Nepal, also distributes grants to women with entrepreneurial goals. High above Kathmandu valley, in a hilltop village called Changunarayan, an ICA-funded women’s center is transforming the community. When I visited Changunarayan a few months ago, I met a woman who makes sanitary napkins, by hand, to distribute to other rural communities where menstruation is still taboo. I met a woman who manages a thriving candy-making enterprise, using a fruit native to Nepal. I met Devaka Shrestha, who runs the center, including its new library, and the grant program that is fueling it all.

“The community has changed a lot,” Shrestha told me from a tidy room on the top floor of the center. “Instead of the men, the women are taking initiative. They’re not limited to household activities.”

Changunarayan, NepalPhoto by Marlena Hartz// The road to a women’s center in Changunarayan, Nepal, the hub for a range of women-led entrepreneurial activities.

Backed by Tewa, women in a village hit hard by the 2015 earthquake, Sindhupalchowk, are also stepping into new roles. One woman in the village recently ran for public office. This is exactly the kind of locally led progress that Rita Thapa has fought her whole life trying to foster.

“It’s women who are holding the peace in their communities. It’s women who are holding their communities together, and without focusing on them, there is nothing,” Thapa said from Kathmandu, where she remains determined to change the aid system in Nepal, no matter how long it takes.

(Originally published in

Published on September 27, 2017// बुधबार, असोज ११, २०७४ मा प्रकाशित

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