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Challenging ourselves to be productive – the story of Barsha Lekhi

Updated: Aug 7

By Marte Hellema, Youth Co:Lab

‘When you stay at home, you don’t have much to do. We are used to going out and being social. They get bored and frustrated of not doing anything productive. People are now challenging themselves to do something productive,’ said Barsha Lekhi, thinking of the silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has had on indigenous peoples in Nepal.

Barsha is used to being active. She is a National Indigenous Peoples Fellow of the Global Environmental Finance (GEF) Small Grants Programme of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). She was the first ever beauty-pageant winner from the Tharu community, Miss Nepal International 2016, and has also been involved with various initiatives related to indigenous peoples, including the Asia Indigenous Youth Platform (AIYP), a collaboration initiative of the Asia Indigenous People’s Pact (AIPP), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the UNDP, and the Youth Co:Lab, a project co-led by the UNDP and Citi Foundation.


She knows the extend of the challenges indigenous peoples face well, from her work over recent years. She can see the long-term impact the crisis might have.


‘Apart from agriculture, income opportunities were already scarce, and pandemic worsened the scenario. Pandemic has not only affected economically but the situation has restricted mobility thus putting an uncertain pause on earning.’

Sitting at home and having to use savings, if available at all, will make it harder and harder for indigenous people to overcome the hardship created by the crisis with every passing day.


This brings with it mental wellbeing challenges as well, such as increased risk of depression and suicide. ‘Empty-ness of mind because of no mobility, no physical work, staying all day home, without work, made many people go through mental instability.’


People with other health issues, in addition to COVID itself, are afraid to seek help at hospitals as these are seen as hotbeds for the virus. And, even if that fear is overcome, the need to get a COVID-19 clearance at 15,000 Nepalese Rupees, serves as a further impediment.


Another challenge she sees is the shutdown of schools and colleges. While classes have moved online, the lack of access to internet has meant that many indigenous young people are deprived of their education, which will come with further long-term consequences.


Indigenous peoples also face barriers to accessing important government provided information.


‘The information and awareness has been given in Nepali, but (..) many indigenous peoples speak in native tongue and don’t speak Nepali. Elderly don’t talk in Nepali. Younger people do. Older people don’t.’


It is not just about language either. There has been a gap when it comes to communication between the government and indigenous people. Indigenous leaders were not consulted on how to respond to the crisis, and the importance of reaching out to people was missed.


‘If you tell people to wash their hands, they won’t unless they understand the purpose behind it. Surface information is given, and this isn’t enough. Information should be full so people can understand it and internalize the rules.’

Seeing the needs of her communities, Barsha has not stayed put. She has become involved both as an individual and as part of collective efforts.


‘During the lockdown, I kept myself busy by sorting out unwanted clothes, materials, and products. I donated the unwanted clothes to the ones in need.’


On top of that she has started a campaign with friends of the Miss Nepal International team to help street children. They raised funds though social media. They collaborated with Childreach Nepal, a non-government organization, and were able to reach out to 33 families of street children and 15 families of daily wage workers with food and other essentials, which should sustain them for about 3 months.


They also used the funds to support Kopila Valley Sewa Samaj, another non-governmental organization to supply 38 families from the Surkhet district with baby food, food supplies, water, and sanitation products.


And they distributed 100 Personal protective equipment (PPE) gowns and 3,500 cloth masks to frontline workers.


Her broader vision is to ensure community feedback mechanisms are set up, not just for the current crisis, but for future challenges as well. Community consultations are crucial, she has found.


‘Civil society organizations and humanitarian organizations should communicate more on how they can work locally.’

This will need to include considerations on how to build on the knowledge and traditions of indigenous peoples. Not just for the communities themselves, but for society at large.

‘I hope that traditional knowledge and customary practices are brought in mainstream and propagated for benefit of all.’


It is all part of her long-term journey. Of staying active and involved, and always doing something productive for her people.


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Co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab establishes a common agenda for countries in Asia-Pacific to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.

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