'I Should be There'

Anjana Shakya AC ’91 helps women and children in Nepal find peace after years of war

by Karen Brown

 

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Anjana Shakya

 

 

It never occurred to Anjana Shakya AC ’91 not to return to her native Nepal after she graduated from Smith. “I felt that if I wanted change in my country, I should be there,” says Shakya.

 

But that meant returning to a country embroiled in a civil war between Maoist rebels and government forces loyal to the Nepalese monarchy—a conflict that few in the West were paying attention to. By the time a peace agreement was signed in 2006, violence perpetrated by both sides left about 12,000 people dead.

 

The ten-year conflict left the country in a precarious state. From the beginning, Shakya has felt her mission was to help build it back up. In 1999, while the violence was still going on, she co-founded Himalayan Human Rights Monitor (HimRights) in Nepal, an NGO that continues to track human rights violations, advocate against human trafficking, offer legal help to political prisoners, and promote political reconciliation.

 

Shakya says her nonpartisan group focuses primarily on women and children, who she says were brutalized and marginalized by the armed conflict. The organization offers therapeutic workshops where they are encouraged, in separate groups, to work through their anger and move forward as a community.

 

Counselors also use art therapy with the children, and together they have created five comic books illustrating the experience of war. In addition, HimRights hosts public hearings in which local policy makers, along with representatives from both sides of the conflict, hear testimony from women and children on how the violence affected them firsthand. Shakya hopes that dialogue will ultimately translate into policies based on mutual understanding, with an eye to lasting peace.

 

What kinds of trauma have the women and children you work with in Nepal survived?
For children, a lot of them had been child soldiers. They saw a lot of torture, a lot of killing; they themselves had to go through a lot of torture. They have lost their parents in the conflict. And for women, some of them have been soldiers themselves as Maoist insurgents. Some of them have been tortured and raped. They cannot sleep. They cannot think straight. They still live in fear.

 

How do they respond to the healing workshops that your organization offers?
[In most cases], they go through an amazing change. On the first day, they’re really mad and they say something like, “I want revenge.” The anger that comes out is unbelievable. And we would gradually see each day how they changed. By the fourth day, they will stand up and say, “I don’t want revenge. It just doesn’t help. It will only instigate more violence.” [Usually, by the end] there is so much compassion and understanding for each other.

 

You must have heard many horrific stories yourself. How do you cope on a personal level?
I have carried a lot of pain, especially when I hear about rapes. It used to be so hard for me—even for my husband or my sons to come near me. For days, I just don’t even want to see them. So I think these public hearings and these reconciliation workshops, and just being with the victims and seeing how they have been able to positively transform, have really helped me.

 

Why did you turn to art as a form of healing for children?
I felt it might be difficult for them to talk. It might be easier for them to express in artwork. And it really works. Once they started to draw they also started to talk about what happened to them. We found it a very healing process.

 

What impact have the comic books had on the public?  
On Human Rights Day in 2008, we had a huge exhibition in Nepal. It was an amazing experience to see how children from Katmandu, adults, tourists—even perpetrators—reacted to it. By the end, they say, “We didn’t realize how much happened to the children.”

 

What are your long-term goals?
To really change societal attitudes toward women and children. The patriarchal value system doesn’t go easily. Ideally I want people to see war and politics from the women’s lens, to make people understand that women and children have a very different experience. It has a totally different impact on them.

 

How do you think Smith steered you on this path?
I majored in anthropology when I was at Smith, and I also took some classes in sociology. I think those classes really made me think of a bigger picture than my immediate needs or my immediate welfare and security. I think as a whole it really helped me to think much deeper, to think of women who have gone through tremendous difficulty, marginalized women, women who are out of touch from the rest of the world. Somehow Smith really prepared me to take on much bigger challenges.