Breaking Stereotypes - One Step at a Time

Updated: Aug 10

By Barsha Lekhi


Barsha Lekhi, Youth Co:Lab alumna and member of Asia Indigenous Youth Platform (AIYP) from the Tharu indigenous community, made history when she became the first woman from the community to win Miss Nepal International in 2016. Defying stereotypes, Barsha is passionate about using science and technology to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), take climate action and create a better world for Indigenous Peoples. On International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples 2022, she shares her story.


I strongly believe in the process of learning and the journey leading to accomplishment. I say so because I have experienced the ride to some triumphs in life. Belonging to the Tharu indigenous background, I felt the urgency to break the stereotype. This was when I decided to participate in a beauty pageant. There was no winner from the Tharu community, and no one from the community had entered the pageant that year. I believe the platform of Miss Nepal is wide and followed by youth groups, and I saw this as a potential opportunity to voice the issues and challenges concerning Indigenous Peoples and protecting our environment.


In 2016, I won Miss Nepal International. As the first-ever woman from the indigenous Tharu community to win any National beauty pageant, I am now known not just by my parent's name but for my own achievements - and I am very proud.


Winning the Miss Nepal title gave me the platform to represent my country in the international arena, a one-in-a-million opportunity to showcase our diverse culture and tradition. Along with the coveted crown came great responsibility to rightfully epitomize the country's representation. With 72 countries participating in the pageant, I won the Missosology's People's Choice award at the 69th Miss International held in Japan. Participating in a beauty pageant made me realize how one's persona, communication skills, and networking could positively impact the contemporary world.


Barsha operating sophisticated machines for laboratory experiments and statistical tools during her Master's programme
Barsha operating sophisticated machines for laboratory experiments and statistical tools during her Master's programme

Alongside my reign as Miss Nepal, continuing my education has always been my priority. After completing my M.Sc. in Environmental Sciences from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, I realized the need for applied acquaintances where I can contribute my knowledge in sustainable development and wellbeing. I learned to operate sophisticated machines for laboratory experiments and statistical tools, which improved my analytical skills.


With my passion for making a difference in the lives of indigenous communities, I applied for various programmes and projects to enhance my knowledge and skills to contribute back to my community.


I successfully applied for the National Indigenous Peoples Fellowship of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Green Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme (SGP) in 2019. During my fellowship, I worked with different indigenous communities under SGP projects, which made me realize how sustainable development can be achieved by involving local communities through awareness and capacity-building programmes associated with livelihood plans.


One of the significant lessons for me was that when we run awareness campaigns like climate change, biodiversity conservation, and disaster risk management, it is equally important to connect with the people's livelihoods. Then only the campaign will have an output with effective participation and understanding.


This was when I supported Baidawa - the traditional healing practitioner of Terai in the Tharu community. I had the opportunity to interview them when I got to know about their challenges of herbal medicine getting rotten during the monsoon season. I persuaded my supervisor to help with a solar dryer. This support helped introduce a scientific method in their traditional system and address their problems. I believe this is a great example of inculcating science and technology with an indigenous knowledge system.


During the COVID-19 pandemic, when the entire world was going through a tough time, as a social responsibility, I raised funds to support street-connected children and their families by providing basic food essentials plentiful for three months. This project not only helped support children but gave me immense contentment and encouragement for being able to contribute to the society.


I also got support from Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) to implement the project, "Empowering Indigenous communities of Nepal with COVID-19 preparedness in their native language", funded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and implement another project, “Young Indigenous Entrepreneurs' support and B+HR awareness" funded by UNDP Bangkok.


The projects helped me to understand the concerns and issues of Indigenous Youth and women and, to a certain extent, and support the empowerment of their capacities, which gave me intangible contentment and satisfaction.


Soon after, I joined the Asia Indigenous Youth Platform (AIYP) as a member and contributed to help prepare the Strategic Framework for AIYP for the year 2022-27. I represented AIYP in the Stockholm+50 conference that took place recently (1-3 June) in Sweden. This was one golden opportunity to share in-person with Ms. Jamtin, Director General of the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), during one of the days of the conference


At present, I am working as an Indigenous Engagement Specialist in the UNESCO office in Kathmandu. My primary role in the office is to familiarize the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (IDIL 2022-2032) and support the implementation of IDIL global action plan in Nepal, manage the UNESCO Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) programme in Nepal through identifying indigenous community stakeholders and ensure considerations on indigenous communities/knowledge are well-integrated into UNESCO projects.


I strongly believe SDGs will be incomplete without incorporating the voices of Indigenous Peoples. I want to create an impact in my community by strengthening the capacity and providing a platform for activism and implementation of Indigenous-friendly projects. During this decade of action, I want to contribute to creating a synergy of incorporating Indigenous Peoples' skills and management services along with science and technology to achieve SDGs for a better future.

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