Sapana Rokka Magar being interviewed by astrologer Harihar Adhikari. Screenshot from YouTube video by Marga Darshan.
The BBC included Sapana Roka Magar, an 18-year-old crematorium worker from Nepal, in its 100 Women of 2020, a yearly list of inspiring and influential women from around the world.
Sapana works with the Homeless Management and Rehabilitation Center, a Nepalese charity providing assistance to homeless people. For the past three years, Sapana and her team have provided traditional Hindu funeral rites for abandoned and unidentified deceased bodies.
With COVID-19 disproportionally affecting homeless people in Nepalese cities, Sapana’s work became vital to this vulnerable population, who are so often deprived of dignified funerals.
After Sapana’s team identifies and collects deceased bodies from the streets or mortuaries, they send them for postmortem examination in hospitals. If the body remains unclaimed for 35 days, the organization takes them to a crematorium and performs Dagbatti, a traditional final rite in Hindu religion.
Dagbatti rituals are usually conducted by the male members of the deceased’s family. Sapana, however, has performed the rituals herself for hundreds of unclaimed bodies at the Pashupati Aryaghat (cremation ground), on the banks of Bagmati river in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Sapana was born into a middle-class family in a small village of Nepal’s Myagdi district, in Gandaki province. She is said to have been a brilliant student during her childhood and pre-teen years. At age 14, she moved to Beni, Myagdi’s biggest city, to study — and that’s when her life took a sharp turn for the worse.
She married a teenage boy against her parents’ will. The relationship broke down just after a few months, and Sapana found herself shunned by her home village. She distanced herself from her family and became homeless.
While living in the streets, she became acquainted with the Homeless Management and Rehabilitation Center, and began to work with them. Sapana now calls the president of the organization, Dinesh Jung Basnet, her godfather.
Challenging gender stereotypes
Gender roles remain strict in Nepal, with women generally expected to manage the household and take care of the family. The pandemic has worsened gender inequality in the country when it comes to education, employment, and income.
In the Hindu religion, women are not allowed in cremation grounds; in the villages, only male members of the family are permitted to participate in funeral rites.
But by providing final rites for people whose bodies were abandoned, Sapana does a job that most men wouldn’t accept.
Nepali social media users were elated by seeing Sapana included on the BBC list and shared congratulatory messages.
Freelance writer Dil Nisani Magar tweeted:
You may have had a lot of pain, stress and problems while working, but this news has definitely made all Nepalis happy. Supana Baini, congratulations to you, you are a source of inspiration for the youth. https://t.co/yHnMako5Qm
— Dil Nisani Magar (@dil_nisani) November 24, 2020
Educator Santosh Upadhyaya tweeted:
I am so happy to see the name of at least one Nepali among the list of a hundred women published by the BBC for 2020. Congratulations Ms. Sapana Roka Magar. we are proud of you. https://t.co/svburWqFzx
— Santosh Upadhyaya (@santoshdhungel9) November 25, 2020
Youth activist Nikita Bhusal tweeted:
After becoming homeless for three months, Sapana travelled to Kathmandu where she became involved in an organisation that cremates unclaimed bodies.More power to you Sapana Roka Magar for being BBC’s 100 influential women of the year#BBC100Women https://t.co/jZlyHYW50X pic.twitter.com/QaeXuTsMuo
— Nikita Bhusal (@bhusalnikita) November 25, 2020
Former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF tweeted:
Bless you, Sapana Roka Magar for your noble efforts. What an amazing turn in life! https://t.co/rk6bneGDoA https://t.co/pXCV139GfL
— Kul Chandra Gautam (@KulCGautam) November 25, 2020
Entrepreneur Kushal Sundar Shrestha complained that Nepal recognized Sapana only after she received the BBC honour:
Technically, as a country I don’t know where we lack to recognize these Heroes and their actions, but next day it gets noticed in @BBC and we start to acknowledge and congratulate them. Hats off Sapana Magar and to all the women who made difference to their society and country.
— Kushal Sundar Shrestha (@iamkushal) November 28, 2020
In 2019, Bonita Sharma, a social entrepreneur from Nepal, was also listed in BBC’s 100 Women, in the knowledge category.