In celebration of International Women’s Day 2018, we are collaborating with a group of outstanding organisations working to empower women within the energy access sector. We will be sharing stories of women’s empowerment from around the globe over the course of this month. Today we’re kicking it off with a piece from our friends at Empower Generation, a social enterprise in Nepal that empowers women to own and lead franchises that deliver life-improving products to rural communities. Empower Generation’s co-founder Anya Cherneff shares the story of her business partner and entrepreneur, Sita Adhikari.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #PressforProgress, a “call-to-action to press forward the progress of gender parity” and “to motivate and unite friends, colleagues and whole communities to think, act and be gender inclusive.” In veneration of International Women’s Day today, US Women’s History Month, and in recognition of all women everywhere, I’m telling stories of sisterhood: Women empowering others to rise up and cross physical, cultural, racial, religious and gender barriers to achieve success in business, at home and in their communities. I work for approximately one billion global citizens living without electricity, and over three billion who are cooking over an open fire to feed their families every day. The fact that women suffer the most from energy poverty is loudly touted within the impact sector. Commercial solutions that do not include women at all levels of business will fail, but how do you effectively recruit and provide a supportive environment for women and other underrepresented groups to thrive? These are the stories of the people I work for and it is my great privilege to share them with you.
In Nepal my partner, Sita Adhikari and I, are growing a network of franchises rooted in the rural communities where they work. Nepal ranks 144 out of 188 on the 2016 United Nations Gender Development Index (GDI). It has made some strides in instituting laws to reach gender parity, but rural Nepalese women still face many challenges in gaining equal access to economic opportunities due to lower education levels, an illegal but pervasive dowry system, a patriarchal society, and systematic poverty. Disturbingly, less than 7% of women are included in Nepal’s formally recognized workforce.
However, there are signs of hope. Rural Nepalese women are the most powerful activists progressing the gender equity agenda. They are providing for their families by working on their farms or in family-owned shops. They are active in their communities, leading community-based nonprofits, and extending support to marginalized people. Despite these contributions to the economy and their communities, the majority of this work is unpaid and unrecognized. This was the case with Sita Adhikari, Co-Founder of Empower Generation and CEO of the last-mile distribution company, Kalpavriksha, when I met her in 2010.
Sita grew up in a progressive rural family. She was encouraged to study in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, far away from her home and received her master’s degree in economics. Sita was also able to marry the person she fell in love with, which is very rare in Nepal with most marriages being arranged. Sita recognized her privilege to grow up in a family that believed in her, supported her education, and gave her freedom to choose her own husband.
When Sita finished her graduate studies, she went back to their village in Jhuwani, Chitwan. Sita managed her family’s fish farm and other entrepreneurial ventures that contributed to the family budget but she was never paid a salary or was recognized as the legal owner of a business. After she helped to build a community library in Jhuwani, Sita observed that most of the users were men. Sita created women’s reading groups and made it mandatory for the library to obtain a wide range of books so they would interest everyone. The reading groups she created developed into a public speaking club, and eventually into the Jhuwani Women’s Savings and Credit Cooperative, a women’s microfinance fund and the most successful program offered by the library.