Kathmandu changed me. Not only did it show me that it was time to leave my life in London and return home to Dublin, but it had a profound effect on what I do, by telling me that I needed to pursue my passion for social justice, equality and human rights. For sure my volunteering trip to Nepal in 2003 came at a time when I was seeking something new, something different, but the magic of the Himalayas, the kindness of its people, and the bustle of Kathmandu city, jolted me into a new awareness. A realisation that I could leave the corporate world behind and work for a cause I truly believed in.
The social and gender norms in Nepal dictate that women and girls dress and behave modestly and that they marry a man that their parents approve of (and in many cases choose for them as well). I lived with Om and Maya (not their real names) and every morning Maya would rise early and take her baby son to her mother-in-laws house.The custom was that she would clean and cook for her mother-in-law while her mother-in-law took care of Maya's son. She wasn't always happy about this, but she did it. Theirs was a marriage of love, and so they each did what was expected within the social norms, to support each other. But behind closed doors Om confided that he did not agree with many of the customs subordinating women and girls, and that he encouraged Maya to have her own life and to pursue her talent for music and singing. It was a relief for me to hear this, but it saddened me to watch him support customs that perpetuated gender inequalities publicly while privately he believed in a different set of values. It hurt him as well as Maya.
Like everywhere else, Nepal is full of contradictions. Every morning I would dress carefully for school, particularly making sure that my shoulders and legs were completely covered. On my journey to the school I would pass by outdoor public baths where women naked from the waist up, saris loosely caught around their hips, long hair coiled at their necks and bare breasts exposed would wash; with men bathing alongside them.These women were the poorest of the poor and had no option but to wash publicly in a society where exposing her body is a taboo for a woman.
At the school where I taught English I noticed a stark difference in the way the girls and boys related to each other; and to me. The girls were typically quiet, shy, and reserved, holding themselves in check; while the boys were usually boisterous, outspoken and full of life and energy.When I spoke to the headmaster about it he said it was 'normal' and 'natural' for girls and boys to behave that way, he didn't see a problem.
On my way home from school one day I noticed a baby girl playing on the side of the road, her yellow dress was covered in dust and dirt, and she seemed oblivious to the noise and bustle of the city around her. I stopped for a moment wondering where her carer was when a group of men caught my attention, they were shouting a price at me, and telling me I could 'buy her' for a few rupees! I wasn't sure if they were joking or not, but either way, I couldn't stop thinking about that little girl, the girls in my school, Maya cleaning her mother-in-law's house, and the women washing in the public bath. That night I lay awake, tormented by the unfairness of it all, and feeling frustrated by my own sense of powerlessness.
The next morning, awoken by my neighbours cock crowing, and the early light of dawn peaking through my window, I determined to do something, no matter how small, to fight for the rights of of women and girls. Turning on my computer I clicked to universities in Dublin and looked up master degree courses in human rights and international relations. A few more clicks and I had sent off my first email requesting application forms. I wasn't sure exactly where this would lead me but I knew I had to empower myself first and foremost if I wanted to advocate on behalf of women and girls, and my first step was to deepen my own knowledge by expanding my education.