21 Nov Empowering Women and Uniting the Community
Sometimes taking the first steps in a new endeavour is all it takes to unleash a wave of potential. Passang, an undergraduate student studying public health at Asian University for Women, wanted to build a center to bring her community together and ended up creating much more than that – a platform for women’s voices to be heard.
In our earliest conversations, Passang spoke politely and quietly. Despite being one of two winners for Wedu’s Special Projects grant, she seemed a bit bewildered at the notion of being the subject for an interview. The Wedu Special Projects Grant was a brand new initiative in 2017, and Passang was one of many applicants who submit a proposal suggesting ways to bring positive change to her community.
“In Bhutan, it’s not common to have a multi-purpose place like a community center for people to gather,” said Passang. “This community center is more than a place for cooking and cleaning though – it’s meant to be a lightning rod for the community to celebrate, learn, and grow together.”
Making her case to community leaders
Winning the grant was only the beginning, however, as the scope of the project required buy-in from her community elders and peers. Passang organized meetings with community leaders to discuss the scope and impact of the project, as well as to organize the logistics for its construction. If Passang had been a university-educated male, this may not have been much of a challenge, but as a woman looking to initiate community-level projects, she was wading into new waters. Fortunately for her, Passang knows the value of self-reflection and active listening.
“I study at Asian University for Women where we’re encouraged to think critically, share our ideas, and engage in conversation. I’ve become quite used to this environment, so it was disorienting when I took this mentality back to my community that’s traditionally male-dominated. I had to be respectful and humble, but I needed to present my points. As the idea continued to unfold and we discussed how we could improve on or add to the idea, things became much more productive,” she recalled.
The path to implementing this project has been filled with learning experiences – from project management to mobilizing her community – and Passang has successfully navigated a number of challenging situations. In particular, she is thankful for her Wedu Mentor, Emily, who has been an invaluable support through some of the most challenging times. “There has been a lot I’ve needed to learn on the spot, and Emily has been with me since day one. She’s provided me with guidance while also keeping me focused and grounded.”
Perhaps the most eye opening experience for Passang was to watch as the dialogue surrounding the community center set the stage for women’s voices to be heard.
From “Their Project” to “Our Project,” Women Take the Lead.
In the earliest community meetings, the male elders would take much of the conversation space, and the two or three women who contributed would be very shy and just agree with the men. “It wasn’t like they weren’t interested or engaged though – there were so many conversations amongst the women as soon as the meeting was adjourned! They shared their personal stories, their ideas, motivations, and inspirations. I wanted to make sure their voices and ideas were heard.”
It was slow to start at first. Passang would ask women during the community meetings for their thoughts and opinions, and they later confessed to Passang they were nervous speaking in front of the men in official meetings. As Passang built her rapport with them and expanded the space for dialogue, women participated more eagerly and with more confidence.
The Impact of Building Strong Foundations
The community’s empowered women are only just getting started, as their impact continues to be seen and heard. It started off in small ways like organizing lunches for the construction workers, but the women continued to initiate work themselves and found ways to become a core component to the project’s success. When Passang is back in Chittagong for classes, the women have found ways to make sure no momentum is lost.
“We ran into a logistical problem right before we started to build the foundation for the center – the hilly landscape and the proximity of the temple made transporting materials difficult, so we had to build an extension to the main road. The women were the first to mobilize and initiate solutions for this. They helped get everyone, regardless of gender, to volunteer for five days to ensure the extension could be built and they are still ready and eager to do more. It’s inspiring and a bit surreal – the community has this new energy in the air and the women are a big part of it.”
We at Wedu are so proud of Passang and her journey! Passang is a Wedu Rising Star and one of two recipients for the Special Projects grant awarded earlier this year. Follow us on Facebook for more updates on Passang’s community center, and stay tuned for an interview with Alinery, who built a library for her community as her special project!