Ask Laxmi Rokaya what she dreams of for her country, and the 19-year-old’s answer is modest.
More opportunities for youth. The chance to go to school. Jobs.
“Many young people here are unemployed,” Rokaya says. “They just wander around.”
It’s one of many problems in Nepal that she hopes to help change.
Two years ago, Rokaya decided to join a new youth group in Kailali, an impoverished district in western Nepal where she lives with her parents and three siblings. She heard the group was offering a variety of trainings as well as opportunities to help the community.
“I’d never heard of anything like this before,” she says.
The youth group is part of USAID’s Sajhedari Bikaas project, implemented by Pact. Nepali for “partnership for local development,” Sajhedari Bikaas is an integrated development program that is tackling a range of problems, including poverty, conflict and inequity, to help Nepal develop in an inclusive way in the wake of civil war and the country's decision to federalize. In addition to improving local governance, boosting women’s livelihoods and using mediation to stem disputes and violence, Sajhedari is working to foster a new generation of Nepali leaders.
The project has formed 115 youth groups in six western districts, providing them with life skills, leadership and vocational training, as well as training on Nepal’s local-level planning and governance process and how they can get involved. The groups have taken on causes such as improving community sanitation, stopping domestic violence and child marriage and helping to build small infrastructure projects.
“Historically, youth in Nepal have been used by political parties in negative ways,” explains Srijana Chettri, Sajhedari’s gender equality and social inclusion manager. “When there are strikes, for example, you gather young men to shut down roads, burn tires and disrupt movement. Widespread unemployment has made it easier to exploit them, and unfortunately that’s led to a negative perception of youth.”
Chettri adds, “In fact, youth can be very powerful agents for positive change. They just need the opportunity.”
Rokaya attended all the youth group trainings she could, and soon she and her 15-member group were launching community projects. They helped to repair local roads, led a door-to-door effort to promote the construction and use of toilets versus open defecation, and have begun coordinating with other Sajhedari youth groups. They're working on plans to start a small business to fund their civic activities.
Before joining her group, Rokaya says, she was afraid to speak in front of people she didn’t know, and she had no plans for what she’d do after finishing high school.
Now she regularly speaks at local government meetings about issues affecting women and youth, and in a few months, she plans to begin attending college to study sociology and rural development. She hopes to eventually get a job with a local NGO so she can continue working to address social problems in Nepal.
“I could not even introduce myself before, but now I have confidence,” she says. “And I know I can do something in life.”