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Policy meets people in Kathmandu book drive

December 15, 2022

Growing up with a host of younger cousins and an affinity for the Harry Potter series, Sumee Sharma developed a love for both children and books. As an FHI 360 trainee based in the municipal government office in Kirtipur, Nepal, Sharma combined her two great passions by organizing a book drive on the internet to collect donations for under-resourced public schools.

“The traineeship with FHI 360 helped me see what is possible,” says Sharma, who is not from Kirtipur, which is near Kathmandu, and does not speak the local dialect. For the paid traineeships, FHI 360 recruited women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities — groups that have historically been excluded from governance. Sharma was one of 15 FHI 360 trainees who worked in a municipal government office in Nepal.

Municipal government is “where policy meets the people,” says Shreesha Nankhwa, a social and behavior change communication officer at FHI 360. Nepal’s 2015 constitution established three levels of government: federal, provincial and municipal. The country has 753 local government bodies. “Most interactions between the people and the government happen at the local level,” says Nankhwa.

The constitution has increased municipal governments’ power and made it easier for people to get involved. Still, says Sharma, “at first, I faced a lot of resistance, kind of like an identity crisis.” Working in the Kirtipur municipality office’s social development sector, where she represented FHI 360, Sharma supported the office with administrative tasks and was charged with developing an independent project to benefit the municipality. Early on in her role, she worried that she did not have enough authority to be there and had concerns about her project — she would be starting her proposed book drive without a budget and did not know what challenges she would face.

But soon, she felt more at home with her colleagues and more confident in her work. “There were certain people and certain experiences [in the program] that pushed me and showed me, this [project] can be done.” The support of her fellow FHI 360 trainees also kept her motivated.

“Whenever I felt conflicted about what I was doing, I got on the phone and talked with them, and they shared whatever they were feeling, too,” Sharma says.

Sumee Sharma poses in the library at Hill Town Secondary School in Kirtipur, Nepal.

Sumee Sharma poses in the library at Hill Town Secondary School in Kirtipur, Nepal. Photo credit: Pramin Manandhar for FHI 360

Sharma collected 215 donated books to distribute to two public schools — one secondary school and one higher secondary school — in Kirtipur. “The growth was consistent,” she says. She also found other ways of working in the local educational system through the municipality.

“I absolutely adore [children],” she says. “They just interest me, and I love interacting with them. I’m in my element when I’m with them.”

Sumee Sharma teaches students at Hill Town Secondary School in Kirtipur, Nepal, about hate speech

Sumee Sharma teaches students at Hill Town Secondary School in Kirtipur, Nepal, about hate speech. Photo credit: Pramin Manandhar for FHI 360

As part of her traineeship, Sharma also held training sessions in schools about consent and hate speech. “These children lack knowledge [of some of these topics], and they love the experience — [especially] the discussion part,” she says. Sharma stressed the importance of using one’s position of privilege to help bridge the educational gap she noticed in her work with students.

Teachers and students at Hill Town Secondary School, one of the sites at which Sharma held a session, had a positive experience, says Anuj Pradhan, a social development officer at the Kirtipur municipality office. Now, the students “understand the importance of consent and why hate speech should not be used among friends and others,” says Pradhan.

A young student takes notes on hate speech.

A young student takes notes on hate speech. Photo credit: Pramin Manandhar for FHI 360

To others who want to make a difference in their communities, Sharma emphasizes the importance of just that: getting started. “Don’t overthink,” she says, urging people not to worry about how big of a change they’re making right away. “You just have to start where you feel comfortable and where you feel confident enough.”

Sharma’s two-month FHI 360 traineeship has concluded, but she aims to continue the work. She studies international relations and diplomacy at the nearby Tribhuvan University, and she is interested in starting a club where she and her classmates can hold group sessions about hate speech and consent.

As it turns out, in the hundreds of books that Sharma has to show for her work, this experience might just be the first chapter.