Aruna Uprety, our Inspiring Nepalese woman of the week works in the field of medicine. She worked in a governmental office for about 8 years inside a maternity ward. Her close hands-on experience in the maternity ward inspired her desire to advocate for women’s rights regarding abortion. Uprety was involved with many different Non-governmental organizations, which allowed her to travel to different Nepalese regions. Through her travels, she learned about women who faced Uterine Pro-lapse, and noticed its prevalence in rural and urban parts of Nepal. Her sympathetic and compassionate attitude towards being an advocate for change motivated her to speak out on this problem and many other problems women across Nepal faced.
You are one of the few doctors who are into community service this way and are also into journalism. How do you think this has helped you so far?
It has helped a lot! Writing has actually been my passion since when I was really small and used to write poems and stories. In this profession, it has helped me with getting international jobs. Moreover, when you are actually writing about something, you don’t just write whatever comes to your mind. After all, it’s going to be read by so many people. So you need to research a lot and listen to everyone’s opinion and go for field visits. All of that has only made me think more and learn more.
For the abortion and pro-lapse issue as well, if I was only working on it and people didn’t really know about it, it wouldn’t have made much difference. And it has made it easier to receive feedback as well. Plus, the writing has come up as medicine as well. It helps me think about work I have been doing. My work has helped me groom my writing skills. Since I keep writing about social issues in magazines and newspaper, people recognize me.
What challenges did you face in the field you’re involved in before actually getting success?
When I was working as a doctor against the rule of abortion, there were a lot of challenges. My own colleagues were against me. It was around 1988; during the regime of Panchayat speaking against the law was a really hard thing to do. But I was a doctor, so the government never went harsh on me. I was actually working in a government office, so I become infamous for being the person who worked for the government and wrote against it as well. After 1990, it became easier to write about it. But still, the parliament members wouldn’t support the idea saying it only brought more negative consequences than positives. And because I kept advocating strongly on the issue of abortion, people didn’t like it. I was called devilish. During all that process, I learned how hard it was to actually make a difference. I had never realized it would be such a long process for changing the laws and policies. I also learned that whenever you’re working for a larger cause, you need help, and a lot of it. Without the media’s attention, it’s really hard to pressurize the authority.
But when I talk about challenges, it’s not about physical threats. It’s more about being consistent myself because otherwise the issues just get cooled off.
For example, on the pro-lapse issue, we kept working on it, writing about it. Even now we keep advocating our ideas on it, with more programs. There have been issues with it about it not being qualitative. Currently, I am also working with UN and district hospitals.
Throughout the years that you have worked for uterine pro-lapse and other child and women related health problems, how do you think the situation has changed? For better or worse?
When I used to talk about it, people never knew anything. They actually came to me asking if things I write about were actually true. But I kept writing about it, traveling through the districts. It was only after some time, that my efforts got attention from international organizations as well. After that, even the local owned organizations took it up as an issue and set up a health camp that gave services towards it. We had a well-documented research and this health camp in Acchham and Doti. I worked there as the co-coordinator. I only used to write about it and this was the first time I actually did hands-on work. From the research we concluded that about 25 percent of women in rural areas had the problem of having a prolapsed uterus. That, I believe came out as a milestone in this issue. Then people started coming out talking about it and started quoting me in. So we took in this issue outside the country. We mentioned this in the Beijing Conference as well. We kept raising this issue in the international forum about how serious this issue was and how having this illness although didn’t kill women, made their life hell and painful. UNFPA on hearing us, decided to help us eradicate this problem by donating for the cause. There was this friend and colleague of mine who once said I had been talking too much about it that wherever I went, the only thing I talked about was the uterine prolapse. What they didn’t understand was, being consistent was really important to make a difference. Now, I am working on the quality service for the same.
Throughout your career, what do you think has been the biggest achievement for you?
The day the abortion was legalized; I believe was the biggest achievement of my life. Honestly, I didn’t expect this to happen at first. In 2002, March, when they decided to finally legalize it, I was truly extremely happy. Another big achievement in my life was when I translated the book “Where Women Have No Doctor” in Nepali. This book is on women health issues and what you should do in such situations if you have no doctor. It was really difficult and I consider this a huge achievement!
During your career span, have there been any women who have inspired you? In or Outside your field of work?
Yes, A lot actually.
In Achham, a district in Nepal, there was a woman called Santa who raised her voice against Chaupadi, a tradition in western Nepal that asks women to spend their period days in an animal shed. This tradition not only is against human rights, but also has hazardous health consequences. She started speaking against it 22 years ago while I started 15 years ago. Now what amazed me was, I was a girl who grew up in Kathmandu, was educated and expected of. She on the other hand, was not educated, and brought up in the rural Nepal. For her to stand up against it was truly amazing.
Then there is this another friend of mine from the US, Jane Maxwell, the editor of the books “Where There is No Doctor” and “Where Women Have no Doctor”. She really inspires me for having written such a book to help people who have no doctor available when they are needed. Lastly, there are the disabled people who do not give up achieving something in life like Jhamak Kumari. She is truly one of the most amazing people in the world.
Honestly I feel like I should just try to see. I can find inspiration in every one of them.
You have also been in campaigns to eradicate social problems like girl trafficking. What kind of problems do you see there, as an activist to change things and for the girls who get trafficked?
In 1992, I went to Mumbai to participate in a program about HIV AIDS. After learning that there were so many Nepalese women there, I went there to visit and asked them if they’d want to return home. But the women there like,their lives have already gone astray and what they wish for now is not their rescue but prevention if other girls from back home to be involved in the same. I grew up in an urban place and got to achieve education. I felt like, if I was also in the same situation as them, carrying loads to survive my family as well, I could have been lured by the promises too. So they need to know what kind of things in the world might harm them. When people like Anuradha Koirala get recognized for these kind of things, the issue receives more international recognition.
I would also like to mention this, trafficking these days is not just like the traditional sex worker thing but also into slavery in the middle east countries where they are asked to work impossible hours and getting little to no pay. We are also working on this type of trafficking now. Because of this, we sent girls of the families of indigenous group and so called dalits to schools with scholarships. Today a lot of these females have passed their plus twos as well and are actually standing up as role models and discuss their beliefs. This is not just a problem in Nepal. It’s a problem suffered by all of the South Asians. However, I do feel like I have been doing my share.
How was your experience staying in Herat with women of Afghan, and also with Laos and Sudan? Were the issues there similar or different?
Herat was such a rural place. From Kabul, i had to go on a one hour flight. I stayed for 6 months and I traveled to many small villages there and there and met so many people. I learned about how their religion and culture were affecting women, how it made them unhappy and how it was affecting their health. But watching them there, I felt like our condition here is much better. We can at least speak up about things we don’t like. It was disheartening looking at their condition but also kind of endearing to know that we at least have the scope for change. And it taught me that wherever you go, you find religions and culture being unfair towards women. And you find women being tortured by their husbands and the pressure of having to bear a lot of kids. Women there do not use family planning. These women never even went to school to ever learn about that. This was not just in Afghanisthan, but also in Sudan and Laos. The situation is far worse than here. In Nepal, we have hope and support for change. They don’t. We know we can speak about it, we know we can write about it. But there, the women can’t even imagine all of that.
How do you think the situation for women in Nepal will change in the upcoming future? Let’s say, 5 to 10 years?
I would say it depends a lot on the political situation right now. Times have changed since the past. Girls today receive an education, and are into higher education as well. Men are also helping women a lot. Before, it was hard for women to work or study alone abroad. Today, that is not an issue. I see so many women working or studying alone outside of their houses. From Afganisthan to Srilanka to anywhere around the globe, I have seen the women in high positions. This is just a start. Nepalese women have been working in respected professions and this will develop in the future. But these are the positive sides. What I have noticed is that people are also forgetting the nice sides of our culture that support nutrition. However, there is scope for us to develop and there are ways. If only politics were more stable and if people were really sincere, we could go way forward.
What are some of the obstacles to leadership that are unique to women in Nepal?
We have this thirty three percent quota for females but you will find none in the top positions. Women hold these responsibilities of the family. If the family members are unsupportive, especially the husband, it gets really difficult for the girl to keep moving forward. Now, since the government has the provision of quotas for the girls, it has been really fruitful because earlier it was difficult for the women to actually get through it. Now because of this system, there is competition among the women themselves and the hardest working ones get selected.
However, there are also problems like these new plans and policies that women don’t really get benefits from. There is free education, but a lot of girls don’t get to receive it. There is a written law which states that children can get citizenship from their mothers too, but that is not in to practice, not even in urban Nepal.
Have you faced gender-based discrimination in the field you work?
This is actually interesting. I never had to face anything like that. People were interested in what I had to say because it was a girl speaking and it was something new. Maybe it was just the way I looked at it, but I never felt any discrimination based on my religion caste or origin.
A lot of doctors today are into commercialism rather than being concerned about healing people. Do you think commercialism has really affected the profession?
A lot. On one hand, because society is driven on technology. It is now easier for doctor to diagnose the disease. But then, this has affected the way doctors operate. These doctors are dependent on these technologies. Doctors today prescribe unnecessary medicines for conditions that can be taken care of by simple counseling too. This makes people dependent on medicines. For pregnancy, when things could be much simpler by telling these womens about daily exercises and the way they should handle their situation, they put the up on long list of tablets. Moreover, the hospitals these days promote more cesarean than normal delivery. This is not just occurring in Nepal but around the whole world and it is just sad!
What advice do you have for someone who would want to go into your field?
The field of medicine, either a doctor or a nurse or other para-medic, is not just about prescribing medicine, but about talking and counseling. Compassion is a huge part of the profession. Excelling in clinical parts is important, but you also need the talking skills. If you are really good clinically but you talk to your patients like they are the lower group of the society, it is of no use. A doctor is like a teacher; you should be able to properly teach. One should understand that they can’t reach everyone but they need to make a difference to ones they can reach. My daughter is also studying medicine. I keep telling her that there is no use of trying to earn a lot of money. The work you do should satisfy people and that is only when you will be successful.
The deadline for Nepal’s new constitution is coming soon. So, what rights do you want for women or your activisms in the new constitution?
I have never really thought about the constitution. The constitution is huge, yet it’s a small document. It is about the guideline rules and not about smaller specific rules and policies. But about things like federalism and big issues. All I hope is that the constitution help lesson the political instabilities.
What are your plans for the future?
I have been working on Menopause issues. This not something people talked about because some people don’t have long life expectancies. Now that they do, I believe something should be done for the women that are experiencing menopause. I have also been working on promoting traditional medicine and home remedies with a new book. For nutrition, I have collected researches and material but I’m yet to actually frame it. Chaupadi in the far western region is another thing I want to work on. Personally, I want to travel a lot. I have only been to Mugu, I am yet to travel Karnali properly and visit mansarovar, and many other places too. This is my target for the next 10 years. Hopefully, I will make it through!