Rajesh Sahani is a 19-year old community leader from Sarlahi in Nepal. He is an active member of a Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO) network and a strong advocate for gender equality and transformation at the community level. Through his life experiences and values of social justice, he demonstrates the power of informal leaders driving positive change in their communities. This is evident from some of the initiatives he led, such as collaborating with the rural municipality authorities to construct a bridge across a river to enable students to access school, and ensure easy mobility of community members.
Despite the discrimination and challenges that he faced while growing up with a physical disability and belonging to the Dalit community, Rajesh was a natural-born leader. He proactively participated and excelled at various extra-curricular activities, including debates and quizzes in school and college; this quality built his confidence and capacity to become a community leader.
Being a young male as well as a person with a disability, he is often met with anger and resistance from community elders when he talks about the importance of equal gender opportunities and changing traditional norms in this regard. Nevertheless, he continues to be determined to raise his voice against discriminatory attitudes against women and girls and aspires to change the age-old social norms. His advice to new leaders is:
‘If you want to change society, you might face many challenges but you should never be afraid of them… Young people can change social harmful practices, norms and values. Let’s give continuity and work together to bring about significant change in gender equality.’
Transformative COVID-19 responses
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Rajesh played an influential role in building community awareness about good hygiene practices and took it upon himself to ensure that the most vulnerable and marginalised in the community weren’t left behind.
An initiative by Rajesh: educating children during school closure
Rajesh, sharing important COVID-19 preventative info to community member
He raised awareness about the importance of frequent handwashing with soap, social distancing, and using a mask, which he learnt from YouTube and other social media platforms. He also requested the local government office for sanitisers and masks and distributed them to the vulnerable people in the community. Responding to the concerns of parents and children due to school closures during the pandemic, Rajesh started teaching the students. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the marginalisation of people with disabilities in terms of access to sanitation and hygiene material. Rajesh’s efforts were instrumental in sensitising the people and breaking myths in his community that made people discriminate people with disabilities; as they were believed to be more likely to get the virus and pass it on to others.
Authors: Avni Kumar and Diana Gonzalez Botero from ISF-UTS, with input from Aastha Chhetri, M&E Advisor, SNV in Nepal
Photos: Meeting Point for SNV
 Rajesh Sahani is one of 19 leaders interviewed for the ‘Gender transformative leadership in WASH during the COVID-19 pandemic’ research project led by SNV and ISF-UTS. The project is funded by the Australian government's Water for Women Fund. Key findings of the research are presented in this learning brief.
 This blog was produced as part of SNV in Nepal's Inclusive and sustainable rural water services in Nepal.
 Additional stories of leadership here: H.E. Dechen Wangmo, Minister of Health, Royal Government of Bhutan | Toumkam Phetsalath, Deputy Head of the Champhone District Health Office in Lao PDR | Chomsy Ngamvilay, Deputy Head of the Atsaphone District Health Office in Lao PDR | Namgay Pelden, Gup (local leader) in a sub-district in Bhutan | Ambika Yadav, WASH Advisor, SNV in Nepal
 To learn more about SNV's rural WASH work in Asia, contact Gabrielle Halcrow, Multi-country programme manage, by email.