Images of a woman in a wheelchair entering the legislature anywhere in the world send a powerful message to the public.
Lakshmi Ghimire, a lawmaker in the 110-strong Bagmati Province Assembly, symbolizes it all. The 28-year-old is the first lawmaker in the legislative assembly to represent people with disabilities.
Although the Constitution guarantees equal rights for women, indigenous nationalities, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups, the provision remains on paper for many.
Ghimire is the first person to get elected to the assembly on a disability quota.
The young parliamentarian hails from Sanga in Kavrepalanchowk district. She joined the Sajha Party in 2017. Recognizing her contributions, the party sent her to the Bagmati Province Assembly under the proportional representation (PR) system.
The youngest among five sisters and a brother, Ghimire was paralyzed from the waist down after falling off a cliff when she was just 16.
“I had just joined Grade 11 after completing my SLC at the time of the accident. I fell off a cliff while collecting fodder during Dashain vacation,” she said.
A year-long stay at hospital further hindered her studies. “Given the lack of disabled-friendly infrastructure, it wasn’t possible to attend school in my village,” Ghimire recalled.
Overcoming these challenges, she pursued her education and moved to Kathmandu, where she stayed at a rehabilitation center in Sanga (Bhaktapur). Later, she started taking computer classes, which motivated her to give continuity to her studies. She then re-enrolled in Grade 11 at Jorpati-based Chamunda Secondary School and earned a degree.
Participating in the activities of different organizations working in the disability sector, Ghimire felt a “strong desire to do something for the people with disabilities”. She joined the RPP and got involved in its activities. “I worked full-time for the party. Recognizing my contributions, the party included me in the proportional representation (PR) system. I didn’t get this opportunity just because of my disability.”
So, how was her first day in the assembly like? It was not so pleasant due to the lack of accessible infrastructure. She struggled during the swearing-in ceremony. “Though aware of my disability, the province assembly secretariat did not make necessary arrangements. I was disappointed,” she said.
Having reached the policymaking level, what does the young lawmaker plan to do, first and foremost.
She says she is determined to make infrastructure more accessible for people with disabilities.
She believes all government offices within the province and affiliated organizations should have a universal design that is friendly for everyone, including people with disabilities, senior citizens and children.
Ghimire, having seen such designs in countries like India and South Korea, notes that these countries already have disability-friendly infrastructure, built with the thought that everyone should have equal rights, not only in public but also in private places, from motor vehicles to structures.
“Like other people, we have paid the same amount of tax to the state,” said Ghimire. “Therefore, people with disabilities should get the same service and facilities as them, and should be able to live comfortably.”
She believes that the state should create an environment where people with disabilities can live like others. There’s a need to raise awareness and put pressure on other provinces to follow suit, she says. “The state should also work to create a more inclusive and accessible society for people with disabilities. That way, they can enjoy the same rights and opportunities as others.”
Her prescription: provide concessional loans to people with disabilities to help them start their own businesses.
Ghimire hopes to become the voice of disabled people across the country by reaching the federal parliament in the next term. “I am not in an executive position now, but I will definitely do some exemplary work if I get to that position.”
Ghimire mentions that even though she faced small problems due to her disability, she did not experience any major discrimination. “Maybe because I had the support of my family, I didn’t have to suffer discrimination.” Remembering the difficult time when she had to stay in the hospital for a year after her accident, Ghimire said she had almost given up on her life as an invalid. “But everybody is proud of me now. They say I have been able to do good for society despite my condition. This gives me a lot of encouragement,” she said.
Ghimire used to believe that good education should be the top priority for people with disabilities, but she has come to believe now that building accessible infrastructure should be the first priority.
Nepal lacks accurate data on the number of people with disabilities, though estimates suggest there are 800,000 to 1 million people with disabilities in the country, about 200,000 of them with spinal cord injuries like Ghimire.