Light in the Darkness: "The Story Kitchen" Turns Victims into Reporters in Nepal


By Sam McCann

As ICTJ looks back on its 15 years of work, join us in celebrating our allies across the globe who struggle for human rights, against impunity. To honor their efforts in the trenches of this struggle, we will bring you their stories in the weeks and months to come.

This is the story of Jaya Luintel, a reporter-turned-activist helping women in Nepal tell their stories and assert their rights.

Image removed.Jaya Luintel     Jaya Luintel sits cross-legged with thirty other Nepali women, forming a circle that curls around the office in the mid-west part of Nepal. Twenty of the women were victims of some sort during their country’s civil war: their siblings or children were disappeared, their parents were murdered, or they themselves endured hideous abuses during the country’s decade-long conflict. And though the war ended in 2006, the women in this circle continue to grapple with the lasting effects of the conflict and the polarized climate in which they live.

Each one of the women in the circle has a story to tell and Jaya, more than anything, wants to hear it.

Jaya is the co-founder of The Story Kitchen, an organization training young women who were victims of Nepal’s civil war to be reporters. All twenty of these women now report on the difficulties facing those in their home communities – the sorts of difficulties with which they have first-hand experience. The first step, though, is to create a space where they can share their own stories.

Jaya and her facilitating team has help in this regard in the center of the circle, where a few dozen knick-knacks lie strewn across the floor: mugs, pens, highlighters, staplers, and whatever else she scraped from the bottom drawer of her desk. She gestures to the objects and asks the women to pick one that connects to their experience during the civil war. If they’re comfortable, she asks, could they share their story with the group?

It's the second day of Story Kitchen’s five-day training, and one woman, from the country’s remote, war-ravaged Rukum district, has been hesitant to talk. But as she picks up a small scrunchie from the center of the room, she holds it up to the rest of the circle and begins to speak.

“My life is like this scrunchie: black," she says.

She explains that her father was accused of being involved in the Maoist rebellion. When she was ten years old, the Royal Nepal army came to her home and demanded to know where he was. She didn’t know. A week later, they returned, this time not asking for anything, but instead offering her a present: under her desk at school, they said, she had chocolate waiting for her. She eagerly rushed to her classroom, peeked under her desk and … everything went black.

“I woke up six months later and didn’t know why everyone was around me, crying.”

A grenade under her desk had sent her into a months-long coma and riddled her body with shrapnel. She’s 23 now, and still suffers the emotional and physical damage of the explosion. She can’t stand up for long because of her injuries, and because of the high cost of care, her family pressured her into an early marriage. In Nepal’s patriarchal society, that means she’s at the mercy of her in-laws, who are reluctant to help her.

“So my life is black like this scrunchie. But my dreams,” she says, fingering the plastic pearls strung along the band, “are as white as these pearls.”

Embracing the Darkness of the Past

Since Jaya founded the organization with like-minded friends in September 2012, The Story Kitchen has embraced both the darkness of its members’ pasts and their hopes for the future. Days are spent trying to understand the conflict, and to prepare the women to interview other victims. The stories are often grim, and there’s rarely a dry eye in the room. But these emotionally taxing day days give way to the levity of night. Once the sun sets, The Story Kitchen transforms into a big celebration: the tears give way to laughter, the objects in the center of the room are pushed aside to make way for an improvised dance floor.

Jaya wants to create this space where grim pasts and hopeful futures co-exist – both are central to The Story Kitchen’s work. The organization is committed to exploring their duality, which is why its victims-turned-reporters spend hours asking their peers about the civil war, but also end every interview with a victim with the same two questions: “what is your dream?” & "what does justice mean to you?"

*The women of Story Kitchen gather for one of their training workshops. (The Story Kitchen)*

Put the Mic Away and Listen

“It started as a storytelling project,” Jaya says, remembering the early days of The Story Kitchen. “It started with a passion that we should document the stories of women, but now we have a bigger responsibility. How do we make these stories visible in order to change policy?”

That responsibility to address women’s needs drives everything Jaya and her team does. Barely over 30, she co-founded The Story Kitchen in 2012 after a decade as a radio journalist based in Kathmandu. Her radio program Saha- Astittwa (co-existence) at Radio Sagarmatha was one of Nepal’s first feminist broadcasts, and it launched in the midst of a civil war that had an enormous impact on women. Nepali women were victims of sexual assault and disappearances, or were left to take care of families by themselves when their husbands were killed or disappeared. Some were even combatants themselves. While she was working at the community radio station, Jaya wanted to bring all these stories to her country, so she interviewed hundreds of victims of both Maoist rebels and state forces.

Jaya continued reporting on these issues after the two sides agreed to a peace deal in 2006 – she knew women’s voices were essential in shaping the country’s transition. But while she loved listening to the women she interviewed, journalism felt confining. She wanted to ally with the women she interviewed, but her role as a reporter kept her at a distance.

Her best conversations happened when she put her microphone away and simply listened. That allowed her to focus on the story she was hearing, not the one she was scripting in her head for the night’s broadcast. Dropping the microphone brought a level of vulnerability to her conversations that she had been able to duck in an official capacity. This is where she began the discussion with her like-minded friends, which led to the creation of The Story Kitchen.

“Whenever we have a microphone in our hand we go to the women with our own framework and we just ask them what we want to ask,” she says. “We’re not listening to what they have to say, but it is kind of vice-versa. We are trying to get what they want to share with us.”

The Story Kitchen was founded to strip away this pretense and mediation between the women and the stories themselves. The organization turns traditional reporting dynamics on its head, giving survivors the microphone and all the tools they need to tell stories from their communities. To date, The Story Kitchen has organized three story workshops and 75 women victims of armed conflict have participated.

What happens at these workshops is a kind of reporting crash course and therapy session rolled into one. Jaya demonstrates how to work the equipment, and the 20 survivors - justice reporters in training- listen to each other’s stories and share their own. And of course they enjoy their nightly gathering and dances. At the end of the session, the survivors return to their communities with technical training, digital recording equipment, and the confidence to amplify the voices of women like them in their communities.

"Whenever we have a microphone in our hand we go to the women with our own framework and we just ask them what we want to ask. We’re not listening to what they have to say."

In the weeks and months that follow, Jaya asks the women to talk to their friends and neighbors about their experiences in the conflict and the problems that persist today. They record some of these conversations and cobble together the story they want to tell, which they then “file” with The Story Kitchen. Some of the selected stories air on Radio Nepal and 30 local FM stations and reach tens of thousands of listeners. The result is an on-the-ground look at the issue survivors face after conflict, not mediated by outsiders but told simply and truthfully by the women themselves.

From Story to Policy

“I am not satisfied with it staying at the story level,” Jaya says. “I want to bring it to the policy level.”

Jaya is matter-of-fact when talking about the purpose of The Story Kitchen. The stories are told with a concrete aim: boost the confidence of women to break their silence and empower them to claim justice.

Policy change has been slow in Nepal. When civil war ended in 2006, the government made commitments to truth, reparations and accountability. However, in the decade since, those promises remain largely unfulfilled. The investigative bodies and truth-telling mechanisms promised in the peace agreement have been slow to get off the ground, and the road ahead remains murky.

This slow progress has an outsized impact on women, many of whom are still grappling with the repercussions of the civil war’s violence. Most media outlets under-report their stories, which prevents substantial public discussion on what policies women need.

“How can you help [the Nepali people] understand the problem women have been facing during and after the conflict are different than what men faced?” Jaya asks.

The Story Kitchen is, in some ways, an answer to that question. Radio is a critical medium in the country: it’s affordable, it’s easily accessible, and it does not depend on literacy, making it the perfect tool for women to advocate for their rights.

Using the radio, The Story Kitchen’s Justice Reporters have voiced political demands and highlighted persistent social stigma female victims face. One key policy they hope to address through their broadcasts is the Interim Relief Program, which were designed to offer immediate assistance to victims, but must do more to acknowledge sexual violence and torture as part of armed conflict.

Beyond policy demands, The Story Kitchen also covers the plight of women whose loved ones were disappeared in the conflict. The wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the disappeared have asked for investigations since the peace agreement. After a number of false starts, the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP) began work spring 2016. However, victims worry their expectations will not be met and that perpetrators will never be held to account for their crimes.

These policy shortcomings are compounded by the social stigma survivors endure. Women whose husbands were disappeared or killed in the conflict are often cut off from their husband’s family – and the economic support they provide. “If you have a son, your husband’s family will help you. They view it as a continuation of their clan,” Jaya explains. “But if you have a daughter? There’s no chance of getting property. You can’t afford education, you can’t feed your children. And you’re single.”

Airing the Truth

Jaya knows that addressing such fundamental problems is a process. Convincing policy makers to consider the unique needs of female survivors will take time – and that wearing down the patriarchal values that underpin Nepali society will take longer still. She sees testifying before the TRC as the next crucial step for the women who have been trained through The Story Kitchen. The broadcasts are laying the groundwork for that crucial public step.

“There should come someday that women come to the forefront and testify,” Jaya says. “Otherwise it will be difficult for women to get justice.”

The Story Kitchen is preparing for that day each time the voices of its women crackle across the airwaves.

*PHOTO: One of The Story Kitchen's reporters interviews a victim in the field. (The Story Kitchen)*