Kanchan Amatya was born and raised in Nepal, and currently serves as the UN Women Global Champion for Women’s Economic Empowerment. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Sustainable Fish Farming Initiative. SFFI is a female owned social enterprise based in Nepal dedicated to fighting extreme hunger and poverty through sustainable aquaculture in South Asia. As an ambassador to Women Protection Center Nepal, Kanchan works with women survivors of human trafficking mainly focusing Asia Pacific region. She is a regular speaker and contributor to conferences and media relating to gender related issues in Asia and her efforts have been awarded by President Bill Clinton, United Nations, and World Bank amongst others.
You founded the “Sustainable Fish Farming Initiative (SFFI). What inspired you to found SFFI. Can you tell us more about this initiative and some of your most valuable experiences from it?
Kanchan Amatya: I am a young woman from the Himalayas. Growing up in Nepal, I spent hours reading in the library with my girlfriends questioning the accepted wisdom of orthodoxies from earlier generations; we all had big dreams. I was fortunate—I won a scholarship to go to school across continents from Asia to Europe and to North America—but most of those friends had to leave school and get married. During a visit to my homeland in Nepal, as a research assistant, I saw how erratic weather patterns brought on by climate change created abject poverty and food security issues. It affected subsistence rural women farmers the most. I wanted to create a program with these women through which they could contribute proportionally to their community. Together we dreamt of building a community where malnutrition and scourge of poverty only existed in history textbooks.
My social business, Sustainable Fish Farming Initiative, is today unlocking the potential of the $200 billion aquaculture industry by empowering rural women of South Asia to fight hunger and poverty in a sustainable way. It now provides rural women in Nepal with access to all the tools and resources necessary to bolster profitable fish farming production – training, micro-credit, distribution and market facilitation – all these services in a bundle. Unlike most development interventions, we believe that the lowest-income populations do not need to be aid recipients – we work with them as our equal business partners. These women with our trainings become researchers, entrepreneurs, trainers, and marketers. And, that is what I think makes a huge difference. They have been able to increase their income by up to 150%, and it’s been an incredible experience to see just how they invest their profits right back to their children’s education and to uplift their communities – breaking the cycle of feminized intergenerational poverty.
You are also the Ambassador for Women Protection Center Nepal. What has the impact of your work with WPC been on the community so far?
Kanchan Amatya: Working as the Ambassador for Women’s Prevention Center Nepal, a nonprofit, that battles against human trafficking and protects adolescent girls and young women in Nepal, has given me an opportunity to closely explore the unimaginable atrocities of sex slavery, violence, abuse, and the painful consequences that – Nepalese girls, young women and children – as young as 5 years old are facing today. The UN estimates 12,000 to 15,000 girls a year are trafficked from Nepal. This is a horrific and complicated reality on the ground! WPC’s interventions has rescued and rehabilitated more than 600 women and children till date in Nepal. And, we follow this rehabilitation by not just ‘raising awareness’ but tackling the ‘root causes’ of why trafficking takes place in the first place. We have a holistic approach which focuses on both psychological and economic empowerment. We are also striving to create fundamental shifts in mindsets of the society without which transformation and true gender parity is impossible to achieve.
Moreover, you are a Global Champion for Women’s Economic Empowerment at UN Women. How did you come to become a Global Champion and what are your key responsibilities in this role?
Kanchan Amatya: Apart from my work on ground, I have also been actively working as one of the civil society representatives to the United Nations; specifically being involved with the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda processes that led to the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. During my engagement in facilitating these multi-stakeholder advocacies in complex policy areas – I was very vocal about the renewal of our commitment to realize the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in national and global level. It was amidst these advocacy works that I was appointed as one of the UN Women’s Global Champion for Economic Empowerment. As a Global Champion, I represent and provide a voice for young women, women of color, and mostly women in the global south who are mostly absent on the UN decision-making tables and whose issues do not always align with the narratives of mainstream feminism. My key responsibilities include forming a substantive network and increasing strategic dialogue with civil society partners at global, regional and national levels.
In your opinion, what are some of the biggest barriers to financial inclusion in Nepal?
Kanchan Amatya: If you look closer at any financial system around the world, you can see that it has been designed in such a way that it cannot function for the poor people. Nepal is a country where only 34 percent of households have a bank account – adding to the 625 million of the world’s unbanked population living in South Asia. In Nepal, various innovative initiatives such as mobile banking and electronic money are being implemented but because of financial illiteracy – a large chunk of population, mostly women are being excluded. A lot more still needs to be done to have an exponential and not an incremental positive change in financing. I think – first, we need better gender and age specific data generation to develop evidence‐based financial programs. Second, we need to implement educational programs that equip low income clients to harness the power of financial technology. Third, we must work towards overturning laws and policies that discriminate against people – mainly women- from accessing financial services. Sadly, these ideas are missing from the current political debates.
On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
Kanchan Amatya: I grew up having to adhere to many nuanced but pervasive discriminatory practices in Nepal that are deeply entrenched in religious beliefs, such as strictly enforced regulations around menstruation – where a menstruating woman is considered impure and as an outcast during her cycle. Many lives are still being lost due to this. These practices have prevented me, my mother, and generations of Nepalese women before us from fully participating in all aspects of public life for centuries. Unfortunately, we are also failed by the law and the state itself. In the present democratic society we live in – the very essence of equality is embedded on the fact that everybody is equally under the law and nobody is above the law. But, if the same law is gender biased – then how are we ever going to achieve the gender parity? These limiting laws and practices can only end when empowered women hold key positions of influence and decision-making authority across all sectors.
Also, I am speaking to you today only because of the education I received. And, I want every woman and girl to get that opportunity because every individual regardless of gender should have equality of consideration and opportunity. If we are at least given that benchmark, then we can decide ourselves how to flourish from there. It disappoints me to see how women’s empowerment ideology has taken a wrong divisive gynocentric turn today but this fight is not at odds with the interests of the humankind. A truly empowered woman holds the key to unlocking many of the world’s most pressing problems for the greater good of all.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
Kanchan Amatya: During my extensive travels around the world and living across continents, I have been fortunate to work with women of different backgrounds, races, colors, and religions; from grassroots-level-advocates to first women Presidents – who are working on issues ranging from education, to global conflict, economics, health, and policy. These women who have taken it upon themselves to provide sustainable solutions to the problems that they struggle with. Also through my initiative in Nepal, I often meet remarkable mothers and young women entrepreneurs. Yes, there is abject poverty in their villages where they dwell but there is no poverty in their spirit, mind, and ambition. These women are struggling to make ends meet but still are making a difference with the little they have. This inspires me every day.
What are your favorite books, films, websites and resources related to international development and women’s empowerment?
Favorite book: Banker to the Poor
Favorite film: Girl Rising
Adding to that, I would like to direct all the readers to our UN Women’s Empower Women website; as mentioned earlier – it is a global movement started by UN Women to bring together passionate and ambitious women and men from the private sector, civil society, academia, governments and international organizations from more than 198 countries – it has a vast number of resources and opportunities available to advance gender equality.