Pooja Pant, a Nepalese photographer and filmmaker, teaches various multimedia skills to women from marginalised communities.
“It is magical to see how people transform when they narrate their own stories”, says Pooja Pant, a Nepalese photographer and filmmaker. Through her organisation Voices of Women Media she teaches various multimedia skills to women from marginalised communities. “The workshop process is very empowering. For them, to learn a skill they would never have learnt otherwise, to make a film, the fact that they can do that, gives a huge boost to their self-esteem.”
Media is a potent weapon, and for some of these women and girls, it proved as the only way to get their viewpoint heard even to those closest to them, including their parents. Women who are otherwise expected to submissively follow the set norms of society. In almost a decade of VoW’s existence, Pooja has worked with women varying from sex workers and asylum seekers in the Netherlands to immigrants in London to teenage girls from Indias’ slums. With the last group, Pooja worked twice for a period of three months, resulting in photo stories and short films about early marriage and sanitation issues in the slums – a topic of their own choice. The productions were as always, exhibited and screened for an audience. “This made them feel very special, that their work is worth something, that people are interested in their story. This experience is life changing.”
Besides donors and general public, the productions were shown to relatives and people from the girls’ own community – thereby challenging the norms from within. The film about early marriage even travelled from the Indian capital Delhi to the eastern city of Patna. The films about early marriage were able to influence parents into postponing the marriages of their teenage daughters.
How it all started
It was an experience in London, where Pooja lived in 2006, that inspired her to use media as a tool for empowerment. “I was volunteering with second generation young immigrants. Due to their upbringing in the UK, they are unable to connect with their parents’ ethnic identity. We decided to show them films and this really caught their interest. Seeing how it worked, and the spark it could create, I thought wow, I can use this for other stuff.”
A year later, it all fell into place. Pooja, by then living in Amsterdam, met Vivian Wenli Lin, a woman of Taiwanese descent. Both being migrant women, had noticed how Dutch media was dominated by the white people despite a large presence of immigrant communities in the country. They missed seeing and hearing the migrant voice. The same year they put together their first project, with women who had recently migrated to the Netherlands.
Having lived in several countries herself, migration is a topic close to Pooja’s heart. “In Europe and the US, the whole discussion about migration centres around how to handle all the incoming migrants. But what happens to a place like Nepal, which is not a host country but where so many people are leaving?” Pooja just conducted a short photography workshop for returned Nepalese migrant women. Many worked in the Gulf region before returning home, where they now stay in a rehabilitation shelter. “I had to re-integrate”, she further expands on her own experience. “Before I left, we had a king! The whole society had changed; the city had changed… my home had changed.” Working with other returned migrants is one way for Pooja to re-connect with living in Nepal.
The same is true for another project she has recently started, called Memory, Truth, Justice, to document and share personal stories of survivors and families of the victims of the armed conflict in Nepal between 1996 and 2006. “I felt I had missed out on so much of my own country’s history”, says Pooja, who left Nepal before the conflict ended.
Pooja’s unending drive to make the voice of the marginalised heard, led to VoW’s ‘media initiative’ She Is The Story , a website recounting personal stories of various Nepalese women who have suffered during the country’s armed struggle.
Pooja describes, “She is the story” is our attempt to find heroes in all such stories and bring back all that has been erased in the past, help reclaim her present and celebrate her existence.
Here are a few narratives from, ’ She Is The Story.
A woman called Apsana Khatun, narrates how she is a stateless child. She says, “I was born and raised here in Kathmandu. I was born in one of the houses in Bhimsenthan where we still live. My application for citizenship has been ignored numerous times without any convincing reason. The reason behind the denial was that my father was an Indian. Just like any one in our patriarchal society, I too kept my surname after my father’s which is Khatun. I have been everywhere like a fanatic in search of a citizenship.” Apsana, continues to fight the evils of her society and webs of bureaucracy in hope for acquiring her citizenship.
Another story narrates how a young woman’s sister was raped and killed by armed forces. The Maoist war had started in 1996. Gita Rasaili always dressed up like a boy and played like one. Whenever she went to collect fodder she used to climb trees, cut branches and leaves. She said, “I felt like I could do everything my brothers could.” Her brothers joined the Maoists. Soon all her friends were part of them too. Eventually Gita joined the Maoists when she was fourteen years old. Her involvement with the Maoists eventually led to the Nepal Army chasing her down but sadly ending the life of her sister in a brutal way. She says, “I blamed myself for her death. I felt like if I didn’t exist, then perhaps things would have been different.” In her attempt to set things right, since 2007, she has been working with people who were victimised during the people’s war. She wants to fight to help them, get justice for what they have lost.
“One third of the PLA consisted of women”, Pooja says. She explains that many of them decided to join thinking that they could challenge the casteist and patriarchal society they came from, but not much has changed in that regard. “Now, they feel sad and disillusioned.”
These stories are just the tip of the iceberg. Pooja feels that even today most people in Nepal are just trying to forget the conflict ever happened. She is determined to not allow this to happen. “The victims cannot just move on. We have to deal with the past.”
Helping her people
Pooja moved back to Kathmandu in 2013. In 2015, a devastating earthquake struck Nepal, killing at least 8,000 people and leaving millions homeless. She raised almost € 10,000 through her organisation VoW to provide relief to the earthquake victims. Besides providing food and clothes. Her team also put together mobile clinics with female doctors and counsellors for women.
Even Vivian moved to Hong Kong and stopped being actively involved with VoW. She remains supportive and recently completed PhD research that included some of VoW’s learnings. You can know more about the group on its Facebook page.