Written by Stephanie Arzate
The sun had barely risen when hundreds of women and girls started to arrive at the Jawalakhel Football Field just outside of Kathmandu, Nepal. It was a little before 7 a.m. and everyone had come ready to run.
After weeks of planning, Women LEAD—along with their partners Higher Ground Bakery, Cycle City Network, and the Ujyalo Foundation—was finally seeing the fruits of their labor: the second annual International Women’s Day Fun Run. The Fun Run, open only to women and girls, was intended to let them “reclaim the streets” in a place where street harassment is common.
The event had another purpose as well: it was a day to celebrate the achievements of women and girls, like internationally renowned runner, Mira Rai, who came to address the crowd at the end of the run.
At the height of Nepal’s Civil war—and at the tender age of 14—Rai joined the Maoist rebels. She was captivated by the Guerilla’s promise to treat both women and men equally and looked up to the female combatants. Rai was too young to fight at the time, but she did train with the rebels. That training, she says, has helped her as she has gone on to become a star athlete.
It is not unlikely that you have not heard of Mira Rai. In a profile late last year, the Guardian called her a “low profile type of national hero.” But while Rai might not be known well beyond the borders of the Himalayan country, she is certainly an inspiring force in her home country.
Despite her small frame, Rai delivered a message that both captivated and energized the hundreds of young women and girls who had gathered on the field that brisk Saturday morning. Addressing the crowd in Nepali, Rai drew from her own life story and spoke of her struggles as a young girl. She reminded the mostly-female audience that they are just as powerful and strong as men.
“I believe girls can come to any level they want, do what they love to do, and break stereotypes and break records,” she told a group of Women LEAD girls after her speech. “If I can come to this level [in life], then anyone else can. All you gotta do is not give up, but give it your best.”
“She is a true inspiration,” said Aastha, a 2015 LEADer, who was able to meet the runner at the event. “We come from a society where women are criticized a lot and even we girls criticize ourselves and try to change ourselves for society rather than be ourselves. But Mira Rai has stayed true to herself, and has been able to become a role model to many girls, including myself.”