Ms. Sapana Pradhan Malla – IVLP Gold Star

On April 9, the World Affairs Council of Seattle welcomed 2015 International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) Gold Star Sapana Pradhan Malla, a lawyer, Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of Nepal, and a former member of the Constituent Assembly. The IVLP is the U.S. Department of State’s 150409 - WAC Event-109premier professional exchange program, through which current and emerging foreign leaders in various fields experience America and build relationships with their American counterparts. The IVLP Gold Star program allows highly motivated IVLP alumni to return to the States to share their success and establish new networks in order to strengthen or start new initiatives in their countries.  This year, the World Affairs Council of Seattle hosted a Diplomacy Begins Here regional summit to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the IVLP and promote citizen diplomacy.

During Sapana Pradhan Malla’s visit in Seattle, she shared a balanced and profound perspective on women’s empowerment at the Diplomacy Begins Here panel discussion entitled ‘Investing in Women and Girls.’ As a lawyer who has been fighting rigorously for gender equality, Pradhan Malla’s standpoint on various women’s issues is very firm and clear. Her fight against injustice, however, has not always been easy, especially in a heavily religious and hierarchical state like her home country, Nepal. Pradhan Malla started her legal career as a corporate lawyer, but due to culturally prejudiced laws, she found that she was not able to provide assistance to women in need. That motivated her to challenge the law.

“Challenging the law is challenging the culture, tradition, religion, and furthermore, the state. It is not easy.”

Pradhan Malla stressed having a law is not enough because “law itself can be a barrier for equality, inclusion and justice.” It is therefore crucial to be critical of legal details and carefully monitor their implementation.

Pradhan Malla has been fighting for an equal inheritance, as she firmly believes that women’s economic empowerment should be a priority. Since 2007, due in large part to her work to extend women’s property rights, the Nepali Government has been granting a subsidy on taxes, now up to 40% in remote areas, while registering property in the name of women. As a direct result, women’s property holdings in Nepal have been steadily increasing, reaffirming her belief that having adequate laws is important, but that establishing solid mechanisms and programs for implementation is also essential.

Asked by a discussion moderator about the relationship between women’s empowerment and men’s empowerment, Pradhan Malla told the audience that equality is about more than competition between men and women.

“Women should recognize what men can bring in the process of change. We are against the prejudiced, stereotyping culture, not men. We have to clarify that culture is not static, it is changing. The culture which my grandmother or grandfather believed is not the culture I practice now. We have to make it contemporary and also make a clarification that we are against some discriminatory parts of the culture, not against the entire culture or beliefs.”

When asked about the weak maternity leave system in the U.S., Pradhan Malla shared her thoughts on women’s differences. “You have to recognize that women are different. And their difference is not weakness. It is the strength that continues human race.”

IMG_2151After her impassioned talk, I had a chance to speak one-on-one with Pradhan Malla and hear more about her work and her stories. I was in awe throughout the conversation learning about her tenacious attitude towards the constant challenges she faced, as I could not imagine how challenging it would be to stand up for something not many people believe. I asked her what led her to work for the marginalized and fight for them. “When I hear their stories, their pain and trauma, they encourage me to engage in the process to fight for them because those marginalized people, especially women, are voiceless,” said Pradhan Malla.

Sapana Pradhan Malla has been involved in almost all landmark cases in Nepal advocating for women’s rights, including cases involving equal inheritance, reproductive rights, and women’s participation in politics. She was one of the drafters of the Gender Equality Amendment Act as well as a model Human Trafficking Act, and played a critical role in criminalizing marital rape and domestic violence. From 2008-2012 she worked in the Constituent Assembly and was instrumental in leading many law reforms and negotiating for women’s rights in the drafting of their constitution. Although she has now left the Assembly, she is proud to be advocating for people on the street and contributing to make changes in their lives. Her current focus is the issue of citizenship acquisition through mothers which is still a contentious issue in constitution drafting. Currently, if a woman is married to a foreigner in Nepal, she cannot confer citizenship to her children, and Pradhan Malla believes that this restriction is completely discriminatory and should be revised. 

The path Pradhan Malla chose is certainly not easy. However, she views challenges as opportunities to solve problems and make progress.

“Again, reforming the law is challenging the culture. It is very tough and especially being a woman in a religious, patriarchal country is not easy at all. Conflict is a challenge. But at the same time, it creates an opportunity to negotiate and make new places for marginalized groups.”

Pradhan Malla said that she would like to implement some programs she witnessed through her visit to the States in Nepal. She became aware of how important it is to work with perpetrators and realized that it is critical to not only address the act of violence but also treat the cause of violence itself. Through her meeting with the Washington State Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises, Pradhan Malla shared the significance of economic empowerment for women and discussed several ways to encourage women’s engagement in economic activities.

Sapana Pradhan Malla’s two days in Seattle were so packed and went too fast, but what she was able to share with me and the city of Seattle was incredibly powerful. It may not have been enough time to encapsulate the whole synopsis of her work. However, I am thankful that I had the opportunity to meet her, learn about her astonishing work, and be inspired by her tenacity and fervor for change and justice.

– International Visitor Program Intern