“After the funeral of my dad in 2018, I took a walk along the beautiful lake at my hometown Pokhara. I saw a man abusing a small child. When I took the child to its mother it turned out this woman was taking food in exchange. She blamed it all on family problems and said I should leave it at that.” This experience took Pabita Timilsina right back to her own childhood in which she herself had been abused: “I didn’t get any support from my family.” How is Pabita helping other women to go through this together, with her ‘Sahayatra health awareness programme’?
Pabita was born in Nepal in 1990 in a very educated ‘Brahman’-family, the highest cast. She went to train as a nurse in Kathmandu. After obtaining her diploma’s, she started working there as an emergency nurse. “I was able to learn a lot of new things, but I was craving for more.” Pabita went to Great Britain to get her bachelor’s degree in nursing. Negative experiences outside university and an urgent phone call from her brother, meant turning points in her five years abroad. And put Pabita on track of the different direction her life was about to take.
Experiences of sexual assault
“In the UK, I was part of a small Indian community. When we went out, drunk guys would impose themselves on me. My friends said this was normal. One night I went home with a boy since it was hard for me to get a taxi. In Nepal it is normal to stay over when you’re far away. But this boy started touching me. I ran away and managed to get home. I felt very uncomfortable the whole night and asked myself ‘why me?’.” It reminded Pabita of bad experiences earlier in her life. Working in the hospital in Kathmandu she saw women and girls being brought in as victims of sexual assaults. She herself was assaulted when she went home after work. “My dad said ‘you shouldn’t be walking by yourself this time of night!” Again her father blamed her, as was the case when Pabita as a child told her parents about what was happening to her at night: “I was eleven years old and every night my dad’s younger brother would come to me. My dad said it was my own fault as I was too rebellious and that I should keep this to myself. I decided to stop telling my story.”
This changed after the incident in the UK. Pabita started opening up about her past: “I told a close friend and my boyfriend at the time. Ever since, I have been experiencing that when I tell my story, people will understand and I feel loved.” Her time in Great Britain came to a sudden end in 2018 after her brother phoned to tell Pabita their dad had passed away: “I felt so bad because being a nurse I hadn’t been with my dad in his last moments. So I thought it would be best for me to go back to my family now that they needed me the most. Our whole family was shattered but I somehow managed to keep them all together. Mom used to run ‘Chetana’, a shop and women’s skills development programme, but she couldn’t manage at the time. So I stepped in to help her. I sacrificed my dream of working as a nurse as I thought helping mom was more important. While making others happy, I felt lost.” Having lived in Great Britain made Pabita look at Nepalese society with different eyes: “People are dying because they can’t afford paracetamol, kids don’t get sex education, girls don’t have sanitary pads and skip school or get highly infected during their monthly period…”
Together on a journey
After the incident with the small child being abused at the lake, Pabita decided to do something about these problems, focusing on sexual violence, using her own story as her instrument: “I started my ‘Sahayatra health awareness programme’ in 2018. ‘Sahayatra’ means ‘together on a journey’. Each time I ask my friends for donations so I can make reusable sanitary napkins. When I have made enough, I will go to the villages to talk about menstruational hygiene to groups of women. Followed by a class on sexual abuse and mental health, and lunch.” Pabita telling about the sexual violence she has gone through is always part of the program: “Every time I share my story it is healing. It is easier telling a stranger, they will not judge your past, they don’t know your future, they just know you in the moment. I ask the women questions about sexual abuse and encourage them to open up. ‘You should talk about it if you want it not to repeat!’. So far I’ve trained 640 women and girls, in remote remote areas, where no one goes. I always go for a follow-up with my ladies. If I don’t do this, nobody will do it. It’s only me in this organization. I have tried to engage friends, but they will ask for a salary, which I can’t give.” Reaching out to remote communities haven’t been an easy ride for Pabita either: “I was beaten up, whole villages kicked me out. After I got married this changed, now my husband will come with me.”
“It is the women that keep me going,” Pabita continues. “The other day when I went to a village that was a two hour scooter ride away plus an hour walking, I was recognized by a group of women on the road. They recognized me from one of my talks. They told me they were now paying their own bills and one of them had a daughter who is studying now. Before our training, they felt it was useless to let girls go to school. In another case, Pabita was able to help a 14-year old girl: “She carried a baby from her own grandfather. I helped with the doctor’s appointment for an abortion and with her reintegration back into the community. In 2022 I want to have a safe house for girls like her, where I can train them and where they can have a holiday, because they go through a lot.” With the birth of her son and the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 has been a remarkable year for Pabita: we have a really, really bad situation in Nepal. Next to corona we are suffering from floods and landslides. People are dying of hunger, or lose their homes. They don’t have normal medication. During lockdown the abuse of women and girls became worse. And our government is closing its eyes.” Pabita keeps on fighting for improvement, now also by informing people on corona prevention.
Interviewer and writer, Lisa Koolhoven