Dhobi, Nepal ─ In the eastern Nepal mountain village of Dhobi, Gopani Karki has spent much of her life struggling to make ends meet for herself and her four children. The remote village lies far from any commercial center and offers few livelihood choices.

Karki's fortunes have turned around in recent years. After a women's cooperative organization was formed in the village, she was able to borrow money to purchase some goats to raise for sale to the local market.

"I wanted to invest my loan in goats because grass - their feed - is plentiful and free," she says.

Since the start of her business more than a year ago, she has increased her herd to five goats, including a female for breeding. Her initial loan to start the business has provided her with goats that sell individually for more than the entire loan balance.

"With the sale of my first goat, I was able to pay off my loan," she says. Her increased income is reflected in the warmer clothing her children wear and the improvements to her small home.

"The women's cooperative gives us choices," she says. "Before, we didn't have any choices. We had to do whatever we could to feed our family. Now, we can decide for ourselves if we want to raise goats or start a weaving business or try something else. It gives us choices that we didn't have before."

Tackling disadvantage

The cooperative was formed as part of the Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women Project, which was supported by a $10 million loan from ADB and administered by Nepal's Ministry of Women, Children, and Social Welfare.

Approved in 2004, the project was designed to address the many disadvantages confronting women in Nepal. The broad-based project addresses legal, social, and economic challenges of poor rural women, including ethnic and low-caste women. Among other things, the project helps develop the skills of rural women, improve their access to legal services, provide community infrastructure, and support institutions that promote gender equality, such as the women's cooperative in Dhobi village.

"This project helps poor rural women who have not benefited from past development programs," says Suman Subba, a social development officer with the Nepal office of ADB. "All activities of the project focus on poor ethnic and low-caste women."

Women in Nepal face a multitude of disadvantages. Women's literacy and school completion rates are low; maternal mortality rates are high; inheritance laws and property rights favor men; employment and wage discrimination persist; and social and cultural practices reinforce the lower status of women.

The ADB-supported project, designed to address many of these issues, is still underway but it is already showing results. About 9,000 women and an equal number of men have received information about their legal and administrative rights and obligations; more than 5,000 women received skills training for income generation; 1,350 women laborers were provided with skills training and awareness on wage rights; and community infrastructure was provided to reduce women's work burdens.

About 50,000 households received improved cooking stoves and wells, as well as some 2,800 community infrastructure schemes - for example, toilets, drinking-water facilities, foot trails, small irrigation schemes, and micro-hydropower projects. Such projects are independently selected and implemented by women's groups with the aim of reducing women's burdens.

Police personnel, prosecutors, and advocates have also been trained on women's legal rights as part of the project. And, approximately 80% of women in the project area received citizenship certificates, while 76% obtained birth certificates and registered their marriages.

A cooperative endeavor

Back in the small mountain village of Dhobi, the results on the ground are clear. The project has helped women form a cooperative that advocates for the rights of local women, provides skills training, and offers microfinance. It has about 750 members.

"Before the cooperative, woman in the village had no way to borrow money and they had no financial power," says Nirmala Tamang, a field officer working on the project. "The men in the community have recognized that the investments by the women in livelihood projects, such as weaving and cattle raising, are benefiting the community overall and they have been supportive of the effort. The cooperative has given women power in the community."

For Phulmaya Magar, the project has meant a complete transformation of her life, which has been spent primarily as a subsistence farmer. As part of the project, the 50-year-old worked as a laborer on a community road construction project. This generated enough income for her to build a new house for her husband and two daughters. Though most road construction laborers are men who are considerably younger than 50, she says she enjoyed and appreciated the work.

"I am strong and I will continue to do this work as long as I am active," she says. "This has helped my family a lot. It has changed our lives."