Women’s citizenship rights, Political representation

Being a ‘sukumbasi’


In this blog post, SuPWR researcher Anjam Singh provides her refections from a meeting with a Nepal Mahila Ekata Samaj (NMES) struggle member who shared her experiences of being a ‘sukumbasi’.

I reached the office of Nepal Mahila Ekata Samaj (NMES) way ahead of time for the interview scheduled for 12 noon. Rekha (name changed) was already in the office. As there was still time and Rekha had a few things to wrap up, I skimmed the NMES progress report while waiting. The weather had suddenly changed and it was going to rain, making me worry that the sound of heavy rainfall and thunder would disturb the audio-recording. When it was time, Rekha led me to a hall saying that there would be less disturbance. However, as soon as we sat down to talk, we realised that there was construction going on in the next building. We changed the room again and finally settled down to have the conversation.

Reminiscing past experiences

A few weeks ago, while collecting the archival data on NMES, I had come across an online photo essay that had captured one of the protests (against forced eviction) jointly organised by NMES in the early 2000s. The essay had also captured Rekha’s picture. I thought it would be an important premise to start the conversation on as it would help evoke her memories of the history of NMES, and it did rightly so. Rekha had not seen the online photo essay, but she had seen the pictures in an exhibition organised by Nepal Picture Library as part of the Feminist History Project in 2018. The pictures helped her reminisce her journey in the movement. She shared that while she was new to the movement, was quite shy and scared, the moment she held the mic to lead the protest, she experienced a different kind of power.

History of NMES

NMES was formed against the backdrop of several forced eviction drives that had happened all over Nepal in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In those initial years, Rekha had travelled around the country leaving her toddler behind for weeks, stayed in the informal settlements and led protests. She witnessed first-hand the injustices perpetrated by the State against the informal settlements, especially against elderly, women, and children, as most of the men were away on labour migration.

Rekha shares that those past incidents now feel like a part of a movie, and at times, she cannot believe she is the same person in the picture. While she can now easily speak in public fora and negotiate with state representatives, she does not have the raw courage to work/struggle at the grassroots like she used to before.

Over the several years of struggle, NMES, along with other struggles and allies, have established the rights of safe shelter and land of informal settlements as a valid rights issue. They have been able to garner support from various national and transnational human rights bodies, and therefore the state cannot easily evict the settlements without proper alternatives like it could before. Rekha’s narrative indicates this evolution of the struggle (in terms of the changing contexts of the problems of informal settlements, and consequent shifts in the strategies of NMES) and her own journey within the struggle. Her individual and collective complex transformation in the journey was a constant theme of the conversation.

Final Reflections

What I found heart-warming about the conversation was how her storytelling did not just contain contents of past events, but it also entailed emotional expressions regarding those experiences. She would often say that what she and her fellow members have experienced and witnessed during the course of the struggle can never be expressed in words and can only be felt.

Their subject position as a collective of women belonging to squatter and informal settlements has shaped their challenges as well as backlashes from diverse set of actors and powerholders, including:

  • the state in the form of abandoning and delegitimising them as rightful citizens;
  • wider communities/media in the form of constant vilification and prejudice; and
  • their own family in the form of restriction of mobility and concerns for their safety.

What are the psycho-social impacts of these multi-layered backlashes, how does it affect the sense of self of women who are part of the struggle, and how does it in turn shape the extent to which they are able to fight and push for change? To what extent am I, as an outsider, able to make sense of it without, as Rekha puts it, ever experiencing what being a ‘sukumbasi’ (squatter or slum settler) is, especially as someone who did have prejudice against people living in squatter settlements a few years ago and who is still trying to make sense of the issue?

Rekha gives the credit of the sustainability of the struggle to the hard work, persistence, and never-ending solidarity of the founding members. She feels she has gained strength from her own experience in the struggle, but more so from the support and solidarity of fellow members and seniors. She had only studied till tenth grade, however with support from the struggle members, she completed high-school and college. In her 40s, she is currently pursuing her Masters.

I found her coming of age story quite empowering, and I guess her energy (she used phrases like ‘struggle teaches you everything’, and ‘I know how to survive no matter what the circumstances’) slightly rubbed off on me and I came back feeling more hopeful.

The conversation has also left me with several other questions. What kind of strategies and new forms of backlashes are the state bodies using against the struggle now that the struggle has adopted a more collaborative approach? The struggle has sustained for almost two decades, however there has been no change in the leadership process – how has it envisioned its future in terms of handing over the leadership to new generation? I hope to learn the answers to these questions in our future conversations.