It’s About Choice: Women’s Empowerment in Nepal

I awoke my first morning to the sound of bells ringing and birds singing. Somehow, my driver had found my little apartment the night before, though this part of Kathmandu, Old Patan, is so ancient that it has no street signs, no street names, and there are no numbers for houses. Places here are referenced by family names or the nearest temples. Streets were developed as footpaths, and only a few are wide enough for a single car to pass through. Dhumbahal House is where I lived, named after the nearest Hindu temple, though there is a Buddhist Stupa outside my kitchen balcony and a Hindu shrine below my living room. They are visited continuously, both day and night. 

Buddhist stupa from Jennifer's balcony. Photo by Jennifer Berry.

By day three I’d recovered my lost luggage, met with the Embassy, and walked the mile through the old city to Nepal Communitere: an innovation hub, entrepreneurship incubator, and makerspace that supports a progressive vision for Kathmandu and greater Nepal. The team at NC is a vibrant community of Nepali people, many of whom have spent time in the U.S. or Britain, and I felt at home almost immediately with the delicious snacks and lively conversations. 

For my residency, I taught a digital fabrication workshop to 16 people, aged 18 to 34, on the topic of women’s empowerment. All of the participants had laptops, some were practicing artists and others were from leadership roles in their work and community, and very few had digital design experience.

Participants for the AAI exchange program post challenges that women in Nepal face in various aspects of life. Photo by Jennifer Berry.

l led each day of the workshop in roundtable discussions with the question: “What does empowerment mean to you?” Some stories were difficult, others inspiring, and I deliberately (and transparently) fostered a safe and inclusive space so the participants and I could co-create a supportive community together. Though everyone had different perspectives, the consensus was that women want more choice when it comes to their bodies, access to education and employment, and who they form intimate relationships with and why. Each day ended with an introduction to 2D and 3D design software and tools to fabricate the components to make art. 

The team who worked on women's empowerment for Career had many compelling ideas and much passion for their topic. Photo by Jennifer Berry.

Four teams emerged around themes within women’s empowerment: home, career, culture, and personal. When it was time for teams to start planning their projects, my workshop assistant and I tasked teams with describing how a visitor would explain their project to a friend, and to create the work starting with that description. Then we set to enhancing the artistic skills that participants brought with them by adding skills in digital design and fabrication. 

Jennifer and the AAI participants visit a local digital fabrication vendor in Old Patan. Photo by Storytellers Productions.

In the photo above, the participants and I are visiting a digital foundry to see CNC machines, laser cutters, and vinyl sign making machines. 

We had ten days to develop prototypes that would invite the public to add to the conversation around what it means to be empowered for women in Nepal. 

You-Yoni team installing the entrance to their installation for the Open House. Photo by  Jennifer Berry.

There was such exuberant energy from participants that came from the project development! All around me, women were speaking their minds, supporting one another, and the feeling was contagious as others in entrepreneurship and artistic communities starting dropping in to see the work and telling others. 

Visitors to the inclusive chiya pasal tea hall were invited to play a board game based on women's experiences during their career. Photo by Jennifer Berry.
Photo by Jyoti Shrestha.

What surprised me most was that these projects were able to extend the safe and inclusive community we’d created so that visitors were now participating in the conversation we’d started during the workshop. Each team developed a project that was participatory in nature. Spectators became participants when the projects were unveiled at the Open House, and it seemed like all of Kathmandu was buzzing with the conversation about women’s empowerment. 

Team Desire developed a project that created community around more choice in the home. Photo by Yajaswi Rai.

Each evening as I wind down here in the Bay Area, my partners in Nepal begin their work day. Though worlds apart, we have been in such close contact online that I feel a part of me is already there. In just three weeks, the rest of me will catch up, and I will be whole again in Kathmandu.

My residency will culminate in a workshop at Nepal Communitere, a cool makerspace in the heart of a vibrant art and tech zone in the Pulchowk district of Kathmandu. I’ll be leading a group of students and professionals to use digital fabrication to foster economic opportunities for women. The participants range from artists and engineers to entrepreneurs and teachers, with each bringing a passion for social change and valuable skills to support a community.

My practice has historically been to bring science and art together for projects that address environmental justice, and I wasn’t so sure at first that I could take on women’s empowerment as a focus. In researching women’s issues in Nepal, I became curious about what empowerment looks like for the women in my own community. What I’ve learned is that empowerment can’t be taught, but something we must all find in ourselves, and we can only do it within a supportive community.

Like Uroborus, the mythical snake who eats its own tail, empowerment and community are forever entwined: community supports us and must be supported by us. In creating a program for women’s empowerment, I find myself feeling more confident and connected in ways I didn’t know I had in myself.

I’m most excited about the opportunity to connect the participants to one another, and I can’t wait to see what they develop for the open house at the end of the month!



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