Updated: Sep 28
Sulata Dhakal is the Director of the Program at Smart Cheli, a non-profit social enterprise that aims to balance the gender gap in STEM fields through mentorship and STEM-based workshops. The organization not only strives to encourage young girls to pursue STEM careers but also introduces virtues that help them develop problem-solving and collaborative skills in order to make them global citizens.
Sulata holds a Master's degree in Structural Engineering and is also an Erasmus+ Scholar. Her passion has led her to become a mentor at the 1000 Girls 1000 Future program by the New York Academy of Sciences as well as a One Young World Ambassador where she uses her voice to make STEM more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
Gender Equality Statistics
In Nepal, As of February 2021, 32.7% of seats in parliament were held by women. 34% of women aged 20–24 years old who were married or in a union before age 18. In 2019, 61.9% of women of reproductive age (15-49 years) had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods. 32.8% of women aged 20–24 years old who were married or in a union before age 18. The adolescent birth rate is 63 per 1,000 women aged 15-19 as of 2018, down from 88.2 per 1,000 in 2015. In 2018, 11.4% of women aged 15-49 years reported that they had been subject to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months.
Unemployment rate (Age+15): female: 13.1% - male: 10.3%
Proportion of mothers with newborns receiving maternity cash benefit: 9.8% Maternal mortality ratio: 186 per 100,000
Literacy rate (age +15): Female: 67.9% - Male: 59.7%
Proportion of ever-partnered women and girls subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months. Age 15-49: 11.4%
Proportion of women in managerial positions: 13.2%
Interview with Sulata Dhakal (6 September 2023)
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: What are the most common stereotypes about women in Nepal
Sulata Dhakal: In Nepal, gender roles are defined by the expectations and responsibilities assigned to specific genders, based on traditional beliefs. Males are expected to earn a living, while females are expected to take care of the household and be a source of support. This definition limits women's opportunities in the job market, with jobs being strictly gender-defined.
However, this situation is slowly changing, especially in urban areas where women have better access to education and are better prepared for work. In rural areas, however, this traditional definition of gender roles remains unchanged.
Nolan Ratsabouth: I have learned about some of the prominent women in Nepal, including the first female President. It seems that more women are achieving significant roles and recognition in Nepal. Did you have a female role model who inspired you while pursuing your dreams? Also, do you feel like you have become a role model for some of the girls participating in Smart Chili? If not, what steps would you like to take to get closer to your aspirations?
Sulata Dhakal: Recently, there has been an increase in the representation of women in politics, as well as in events like CNN Heroes. It is great to see more recognition of women who are working hard in their respective fields. Personally, I find this development to be very encouraging.
When my mother had us, she had only completed high school and had just gotten married. Despite having three children to take care of, she managed to continue her studies and even earned a master's degree. Her ability to balance her responsibilities and continue her education was admirable, and I consider her a role model for women who aspire to similar achievements.
My mother's dedication to her studies while also managing household responsibilities and raising us was truly remarkable. She was even able to become a lecturer in her field. Her example inspires me and shows me that anything is possible if you work hard and stay committed to your goals.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: When it comes to President Bhandari and women in politics in general, do you believe that a candidate's gender is significant in an election?
Sulata Dhakal: In Nepal, the process for electing a president is quite different from that in the USA. The president is not elected by the common people, but rather by the members of Parliament and the members of provinces who were elected by the people. At the local level, gender can play a role in elections, as fewer women receive tickets for election. However, in my opinion, gender does not play a significant role in the actual election process. The real challenge lies in the journey to reach the position where one can receive a ticket to run for election.
Shobe Manuel: How soon do you think the gender gap in STEM fields can be balanced, and what are some potential obstacles?
Sulata Dhakal: Thank you for the question. Balancing the gender gap in STEM is a complex and ongoing process that involves various factors and challenges. It is difficult to predict when it will happen, but currently only around 12% of women in Nepal are graduating in engineering and technology, which shows the imbalance. We have a long way to go to achieve gender balance.
As someone who has been working for women and girls for more than three years, I believe that stereotypes and biases about gender roles are one of the main obstacles. Another challenge is the underrepresentation of women in the field, creating a cycle where young girls don't see female role models and are discouraged from pursuing STEM fields. We need to break this cycle by promoting and supporting women in STEM and providing them with role models to look up to.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: Do you believe that the government of Nepal is doing enough to improve the situation of women in your country? What additional actions should the government take to accelerate progress towards gender equality?
Sulata Dhakal: The government of Nepal has taken significant steps and initiatives to improve the situation and promote equality. Efforts include creating legal policies, implementing programs, and raising awareness through initiatives such as access to education and healthcare. One noteworthy policy is the constitutional requirement that 33% of members in the Parliament House of Representatives must be female, which encourages women to pursue political careers. Although 30% may not seem like a significant number, it is certainly a step in the right direction. Additionally, there are rules that require a 50% representation of women in higher positions, such as mayors or presidents. These policies are crucial in improving the situation of women in Nepal.
To further improve the situation, the government and people of Nepal should implement these legal policies effectively. Making public spaces safer for women is also important, as still, women face challenges to walk around safely at night. Childcare and healthcare support are also essential services that need to be considered.
Overall, the efforts made by the government of Nepal are commendable, and further action to implement policies and create safe public spaces is crucial in promoting gender equality and improving the lives of women in the country.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: Do women in Nepal generally support efforts to improve their situation? What is men's attitude towards these changes?
Sulata Dhakal: There has been a growing awareness and movement for gender equality in Nepal, with many organizations, including ours, working towards promoting and empowering women. However, there are other organizations also dedicated to women's empowerment. Despite challenges, progress has been made, and I can provide an example of this. After COVID-19, the Nepal Government proposed a new rule that required women under 40 years old to have a consent letter signed by family members to travel abroad for a visit visa. While intended to reduce human trafficking, it was also a limiting measure. As soon as the new rule was announced, there was a huge outrage on social media and in the streets led by women. The new rule was dismissed within a week, showcasing how women can take charge of discrimination and injustice.
The younger generation in urban areas has been more mobile and engaged in gender equality initiatives. However, challenges persist as some men hold different opinions due to ingrained gender roles and biases. Nonetheless, we have seen progress in this area.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: What was your family's reaction when you said, "I'm going to Europe to study"? It may have been unexpected coming from a woman of your age. Did your family react positively?
Sulata Dhakal: I consider myself privileged because my parents are very liberal about these kinds of things, which is not the case for many people in Nepal. I was able to make the decision to go to Europe, travel, and stay alone. It was easy for me to say, "I'm going. I'm traveling. I received a scholarship, so I'll be staying alone." Of course, my parents had some concerns, but they never stopped me. It was just their natural parental instinct.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: We are discussing the attitudes of men and women in Nepal and whether they are changing, particularly among your generation. Do you believe that attitudes are becoming more open and supportive, particularly towards women?
Sulata Dhakal: I choose to surround myself with a supportive and safe environment. Within my circle, I never hesitate to express myself freely. However, outside of it, I need to be cautious as my voice and reasoning may be perceived negatively. In recent years, I have had the opportunity to work with individuals who are more accepting of gender inclusivity and diversity.
Aidan Duffield: What would your advice be for women struggling with workplace discrimination or less opportunities?
Sulata Dhakal: First of all, I would like to acknowledge that discrimination is prevalent in Nepal, and it is essential to understand our legal rights to empower ourselves to advocate against it. Speaking up about our experiences and seeking support from trusted colleagues and family members is also crucial in addressing this issue.
However, it is also important to prioritize our own well-being as this can be a lengthy and emotionally challenging process. If you are struggling, seeking counseling and support is necessary. Once you have come a long way and feel comfortable, you can advocate for gender equality based on your experiences and ensure that it does not happen again.
In conclusion, my advice would be to educate yourself on your legal rights, speak up about your experiences, seek support, prioritize your well-being, and become an advocate for gender equality once you are ready.
Maddie Comeaux: What are some of the qualities and characteristics that make a helpful mentor to young girls?
Sulata Dhakal: Mentoring is essential and can have a positive and lasting impact on the lives of young girls. To be an effective mentor, having empathetic qualities is key. This means being able to understand and relate to the experiences, challenges, and emotions that young girls face.
Listening to the girls without judgement and creating a safe space where they feel heard and understood is also crucial. Providing constructive feedback is important as well, as they are continuously growing and learning from their mistakes.
In summary, being an impactful mentor involves having empathetic qualities, listening without judgement, and providing constructive feedback and guidance.
Thuy Duong Le: Do you think it is better to let women who did not have the opportunity to go to school at a young age start learning from the beginning, or should they be taught and work simultaneously?
Sulata Dhakal: I believe it's important to provide women with the opportunity to attend school, especially at a young age. By receiving a basic education, they will gain a better understanding of the world, how to learn, and more. Early exposure to education is crucial for the betterment of society, and it's essential for everyone, not just women, to have access to education. Without it, individuals miss out on valuable learning experiences. Therefore, I believe that early exposure is important for driving the young generation to pursue their goals.
Sheridan Smith: Okay, Do you have a specific event that led you to your line of work?
Sulata Dhakal: I have always seen teaching as a key career path, likely due to the influence of my mother, who was a lecturer, and my father, who started his career as a teacher. Although I cannot pinpoint a specific event that led to this interest, my exposure to teaching and mentoring from a young age, as well as my personality, were likely contributing factors. Ultimately, my personality and the environment I grew up in led me to pursue a career as a social entrepreneur, with a focus on entrepreneurship, mentoring, and teaching.
Chloe Truong: Have you encountered any negative comments or doubts questioning women's abilities in the STEM field?
Sulata Dhakal: As I mentioned earlier, I always strive to create an environment where I feel comfortable. Luckily, I am privileged enough to have such an environment, not just on a personal level, but even when I step outside of my immediate circle. Though at times I may encounter negative comments or judgments due to my interests which doesn’t aligned with stereotypical mindset, I have a safe environment and supportive people around me to fall back on. For that, I am grateful and content.
Sheridan Smith: What is one of the biggest challenges you face in your line of work?
Sulata Dhakal: Our work involves helping people understand the importance of STEAM education. This means emphasizing the need for younger generations to be introduced to technology, science, and engineering. STEAM education is not only relevant for undergraduates; it is equally crucial for enhancing critical thinking and curiosity among younger audiences. However, raising awareness about STEAM education has proven to be a significant challenge when we visit schools and talk to people about our line of work. Overcoming this challenge is crucial for promoting STEAM education.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: While studying in Spain, which was more difficult for you to manage: your foreign status, being a woman, or the combination of both?
Sulata Dhakal: During my time in Europe, I never felt like I was treated differently because I was a woman. This was a huge eye-opening moment for me. However, being a foreigner was challenging, as everyone in Spain expected me to understand and speak Spanish fluently, which I didn't. Despite this language barrier, I had a great experience traveling and studying at the university with my friends. Overall, it was a really positive experience for me.
Zevin Sanchez: How did being youthful affect your journey?
Sulata Dhakal: I was the youngest one in both my undergraduate and graduate degree programs in structural engineering. I was also the youngest one in my first workplace. Despite this, being the youngest one has given me positive confidence. For example, in my graduate degree program, whenever I had less experience or knowledge in a specific area, I would remind myself that I had many years ahead to gain knowledge and improve in that field. This mindset has positively influenced my work performance.
Vienna Schnetzka: Which of your favorite experiences truly made you proud of the contribution you were making to society?
Sulata Dhakal: Hmm, okay. I consider my first ever experience with a community as my favorite experience. I was an undergraduate student at the time when Nepal was hit by an earthquake in 2015. Being a civil engineering student, I got an opportunity to assist in the reconstruction efforts. I went to a city that was mostly affected by the earthquake and was given the responsibility of assessing the degree of damage in the buildings.
It was a massive earthquake, and a lot of people lost their lives, and many buildings were severely damaged. I talked to the community members and saw firsthand the extent of the damage. They asked me questions about building houses that would be safer for earthquakes, even though I was not an engineer yet. It was my first experience of doing something for a community as a student, and it became my favorite experience.
Nolan Ratsabouth: I noticed your interest in machine learning in structural design and earthquake load modeling, among several other seismic prevention/protection topics. Considering your education and the frequency of earthquakes in Nepal, I am assuming that your interests align with providing help to your country with earthquake problems. Were you ever affected by earthquakes personally, and if so, did this drive you to pursue the field that you are currently in?
Sulata Dhakal: I was not personally affected by the earthquake in 2015. However, the experience was devastating for Nepal and the surrounding area which emotionally affected everyone. It motivated me to pursue structural engineering, specifically to conduct community damage assessments of their buildings. Witnessing people unable to construct homes and living outside their houses compelled me to take action in this field.
Shobe Manuel: What specific virtues does Smart Cheli teach young girls, and do they vary from principles that a boy would be taught?
Sulata Dhakal: Thank you for your feedback. At Smart Cheli, we deliver workshops on technical areas such as engineering, coding and electronics. However, we understand that our audience is young and needs to have fun while learning. In addition to providing technical skills, we aim to instill virtues such as curiosity, forgiveness, and patience in children. We understand that learning about engineering can be challenging and frustrating, but we strive to ensure that our students learn valuable life values and skills.
Our curriculum is not designed specifically for boys or girls, but we encourage more than 50% of young girls to participate in our workshops to promote equal representation in the field. Our courses are designed for both boys and girls, and we believe that there is no variation in learning because younger minds have a similar mindset.
In conclusion, we strive to create a learning environment that is both enjoyable and educational. Our goal is to inspire the next generation of engineers and innovators with our courses.
Abby Harris: What are some of your greatest achievements at Smart-Cheli?
Sulata Dhakal: My ultimate goal is to impart knowledge and skills to both the general public and young girls. One experience that really stood out to me was when I was teaching a group of young girls. They told me that they felt safe in the classroom and that they could ask me any question without fear of judgment. It was a moment that made me realize that we are making a positive impact and that we can continue to effect change. Providing a safe and inclusive learning environment is crucial in achieving this goal.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: What is the most rewarding aspect of working at Smart Cheli?
Sulata Dhakal: Working at Smart Cheli is rewarding due to the innovative people around us. Most of us are engineers, passionate about making changes in our workplace. Being surrounded by this working environment is a rewarding experience. Additionally, teaching younger minds and nurturing their curiosity adds another level of fulfillment. If you're having a bad day, attending a workshop will surely turn it around and make it a good day. This is truly exceptional.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: Imagine waking up tomorrow morning to discover that you have become the new Prime Minister of your country. What would be the very first thing you would do with that power?
Sulata Dhakal: I never imagined myself as a Prime Minister, but if I woke up tomorrow as one, I would ensure that all participants in Parliament, policy-making, and judicial levels have equal voices and opportunities. Another thing I would do is ensure that local and provincial governments provide equal opportunities for people to pursue their interests in their own areas. Nepal is too centralized around Kathmandu, and everything happens there. The country is overly dependent on one city. Therefore, I would work to implement a more decentralized system within Nepal.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho: Thank you for being here. It is an honor to have you as our guest. We appreciate your time and willingness to accept our invitation. Your work is changing the lives of many women and promoting gender equality not only in Nepal, but also around the world. Thank you very much for everything you do.