High in the Himalayas, nestled among the world's tallest mountains, lies the remote Nepalese province of Kargali. In the farthest corner of Kargali rests the village of Mugu, home of the Mugal people.
"I am from Mugu district. My district is the remotest region of the Nepal, with the least development…When I went to school, no other girl in my community went to school," reveals human rights activist Toma Lama, in a personal interview. Seven years ago, Toma Lama moved to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, where she has dedicated her life to raising awareness and promoting indigenous women’s rights.
Approximately 47% of Nepal's 27 million inhabitants are indigenous, and many of them live in poor, isolated, and hard-to-reach villages. At Land is Life and Youth Preparatory meetings, as well as other indigenous rights gatherings, the rights of young indigenous women and children are typically at the forefront. Lama calls indigenous women, particularly those in remote areas, "backwards," unskilled, and uninformed. Beyond an annual health care program lasting for 2-3 days, these remote peoples have little or no access to health care and maternal care programs, and similarly limited access to other services such as education. Many are not worried or aware of their rights, and they have "zero" representation in politics, continues Lama.
"Women in remote areas do not exist, they do not have power... In remote areas women [are] totally neglected by the government," states Lama. Women marry early and start to have children between 13 and 16 years of age, and will each have anywhere from 7 to 15 children during their lifetimes. Due to poverty and the lack of hospitals, medicines, and skilled attendants, 60% of children in Mugu die before the age of 5 (International Nepal Fellowship). Usually lacking in formal education, most indigenous women are unemployed. Unable to find jobs or seeking more than the $2 USD/day earnings of a typical Nepalese, some women join young men in going abroad.
Arabic countries are the main destinations of the two million Nepalese —and the roughly 1,000 more each day— who have chosen to emigrate. Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Qatar, and Malaysia are countries of choice due to ease of migration. However, the opportunities found abroad are by no means optimal, proving dangerous and sometimes fatal. In 2011, a video made by The Guardian's Pete Pattison uncovered cases of Nepalese migrants who had been deceived by agents (who charged about $5,000 - 6000 USD for their job-finding services) into being trafficked, stranded, and living in "slavery and appalling conditions." Even in less severe situations, many migrants find it difficult to adapt to a new country and find decent work – some regretting their departure from Nepal and choosing to return if they can manage it.
NGOs and activists like Toma Lama are trying to raise awareness at a grassroots level of indigenous issues —education, access to health care facilities, and employment— across all of Nepal. Lama believes that, remote areas require special attention, and that the construction of roads holds the key to solving many of their problems.
"People cannot go [from] one place to another because there is no road. Every time, I raise this issue in my radio," she says, referring to her radio broadcast “Voice of the Backwarded Peoples' Program”. Roads would connect these villages with progress, development programs, and employment; they would connect villages with modern facilities, provide access to ambulances, quality education, and overall enable the movement of people and essential goods. But for these improvements, they need the government's help.
Lama will bring up all of these challenges, especially those faced by Nepal's indigenous women, at the United Nation's upcoming 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. Lama describes herself as a journalist, filmmaker, social worker and activist for indigenous women. She is also the Secretary General of the Federation of Indigenous Nationalities Film and made the first film in existence of the Mugu people, for which the community gave her an award; the first award, hopefully, of many more to come.