Photo Credit: Sama Basil Kamal
Wardrobe: Jolie's Closet, Amman, Jordan

Sahara Basnet, former Miss Nepal Asia Pacific International 2017, is also a development practitioner with over five years of experience in gender, WASH (water, sanitation & hygiene), and climate change. After competing in the international pageant Miss Asia Pacific International 2017 held in the Philippines, she decided to further her studies by doing her MA in Gender and Development from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), United Kingdom. Along with working at IDS as a research assistant, she had the pleasure of working with various prestigious organizations such as the BlinkNow Foundation and KOICA (Korea International Cooperation Agency). While leading her own non-profit organization - Asha Social Initiative, she is also working as an International consultant for the International Water Management Institute Sri Lanka (IWMI) and engaging with projects in India and Bangladesh. 

Have you always been interested in social work?
Well, yes and no. I completed my bachelor's in business administration from Kathmandu University School of Management. During that time, my best friend and I founded a non-profit named Asha Social Initiative. That project sparked an interest in me towards the development sector which was further fueled by Miss Nepal as we were heavily encouraged to do social work at the time. Since then, this has been my field of choice.

What is Asha Social Initiative all about?
Asha Social Initiative is a passion project I and my best friend Astha Basnet started during our undergraduate studies. It is a non-profit organization that works towards addressing water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) challenges and needs in rural schools of Nepal. During our trip to Rani, Biratnagar, we discovered that girls in (some) villages had to drop out of school due to lack of proper toilets once they hit their menstrual age. Consequently, our social work initiative Asha was born to provide improved sanitation in rural schools to promote literacy and gender equality. 
Access to WASH facilities in schools directly contributes to increased female literacy and women empowerment, two crucial elements in creating a gender-equal Nepal. However, this is a shared responsibility! Donors, governments, and NGO/INGO involved in both WASH and education sectors need to take an active step and collaborate for a better future.
From being a Miss Nepal to a development practitioner, how did that journey take place?
Once you are crowned Miss Nepal, you are expected to pursue the world of entertainment and glamour either as an actor or a model. And if you are not in the "limelight" anymore, people tend to think that you are "lost".

But that is definitely not the case! 
For me, Miss Nepal was a passion; the idea of representing my country on a global stage as an ambassador is what drew me to the pageant. Once I had the opportunity to fulfill my dream and complete my year-long tenure as a Miss Nepal, that was it for me. I decided to go back to my studies and continue my professional aspirations. My aim in life is to be a prominent contributor in the development sector of Nepal and help create visible change, and that is exactly what I am working towards!

How do you think being  Miss Nepal has assisted you in your work? 
The Miss Nepal title has helped me immensely and given me the confidence to tackle everything head-on. I was an introvert growing up; I did not even dare to voice my questions out loud in class. Now, public speaking is my best skill and personal hobby, thanks to the exposure I received through Miss Nepal. 
During my master's, I was selected as a TedX speaker among my brilliant peers to share my thoughts on post-covid development strategies. Although this opportunity wasn't a direct benefit of being a Miss Nepal, because of my public speaking skill gained through the pageant, I was able to give my talk live to an international audience and have an on-the-spot Q/A. 
During my work at the BlinkNow foundation, I was able to use my connections and friendships formed through the Miss Nepal platform and promote the organization as well as bring partnerships that would help the children of Kopila Valley School, Surkhet.
These are just a few of many  examples of how Miss Nepal has directly helped me in my work. 

Did your family support your Miss Nepal journey?
Initially they were skeptical as no one in my family had attempted it before. But once I assured them that this is what I truly wanted to do, they supported me whole heartedly. Like most girls, my dad is my hero, he supported me every step of the way; making sure I was eating right, driving me to designers, helping me prep for my international pageant, providing input in my introduction video and even making the crown for my national costume. My mom supported me as well. I have been blessed to have such amazing parents. 

Being Miss Nepal vs. the life you lead now, how different is the lifestyle ?
Oh it’s very different. As miss Nepal I was busy with multiple shoots, staying in shape and making sure I attended relevant events. Being asked to speak on stage was a normal thing so I would constantly be polishing my public speaking skills. 
As an international consultant, I mostly work from home and devote my time to improve my writing skills, publishing papers and understanding the global development discourse.  

Did you ever think of staying abroad and taking opportunities there or maybe you might in the future? 
No, I want to stay here and work towards the betterment of my country. Although I am working internationally and may even travel for work, I want to use all the skills I gain though my experience to better my own non-profit Asha and help build a gender equal future for Nepal. 
Miss Nepal also made me extremely patriotic. When you go to an international pageant, people don’t recognize you by your name, your country’s sash is what represents you and adds value to you. My experience there has taught me that internationally, I will always be a reflection of my country so if I want to excel, I have to support and develop my own country too. 

As a gender expert, what do you think is the most pressing women’s issue in Nepal that needs to be addressed?
Although Nepal is progressive in many ways, for eg: abortion is legal in Nepal. Limiting women to pass citizenship to their children without a father’s name is a huge hurdle in Nepal and a clear violation of international treaties we have signed such as CEDAW. While women (mothers) technically can pass on their citizenships in their names, the process is very long and difficult, it is not as easy as passing citizenship through the father. Victimized women and their children suffer the most as they do not have the means and knowledge to go through the rigorous process of passing citizenship solely in their name. And when a child is unable to get a citizenship, they become stateless in their own country and have no access to basic needs such as healthcare and education. Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg; if we truly want to help women who are most marginalized, this issue needs to be addressed. 

As a feminist working towards helping other women and girls of Nepal, who is your role model? 
My mother and grandmother are my true role models. Growing up under the guidance of such strong female presence has always taught me to aspire for independence. They have taught me to never back down from a challenge and that there is absolutely nothing I cannot achieve if I put my mind to it. Even though they grew up around rigid patriarchal structures, they always believed in gender equality and never limited my ambitions. Having such solid back support continues to help me thrive and achieve!

What’s the best life advice you can give to young girls?
Well one thing I always say is “Never underestimate the power of average”. Growing up, I never felt like I was the best at anything. In school I never won any competitions but that never stopped me from competing. In class, I never became first but that never stopped me from pursuing my further studies. Even during Miss Nepal, most of my fellow competitors were seasoned models but that did not stop me from competing with confidence. Being average, to me, meant I had room to improve so that is exactly what I did! My positive attitude in life helped me gain many gold medals and now, a Master’s degree from the world’s no. 1 university and the Miss Nepal crown. So for me it’s not about who reaches the top first but who has the hunger to keep growing beyond it! 
Growing up, when I used to share my aspiration to become Miss Nepal, some kids even made fun of me thinking how could an introverted, average girl like me even aspire for such a thing. But here I am now, so my advice to young girls is - Always believe in yourself even if no one believes in you because they don’t know what you are capable of, only you do! 
Your capabilities are as limitless as your dreams!