8 March is International Women’s Day. International Women’s Day is observed around the world each year to celebrate the achievements and gains made by women and to focus on the job still to be done in working towards equality for women. International Women’s Day provides an opportunity for communities to recognise and celebrate local women’s achievements and the contribution they continue to make to their area.
I was reading in a paper the other day about a community in western Nepal which observed strict traditional customs related to maternity as well as menses. The new-born child and mother have to remain secluded, usually in the cow shed, for 11 days before the priest “purifies” the child in the ceremony commonly known as Nwaran. Similarly, women have to remain completely secluded for 5 days during their monthly menses. The former has resulted in the death of children who do not have access to proper post-natal care. The latter is yet another phenomenon of “untouchability” in our society.
A few months ago, the Miss Nepal pageant had to be scuttled due to protests from a women Maoist group which dubbed it as exploitation of women, ignoring completely that all the contenders were well educated young ladies, there is no bikini parade in the Nepal pageant, and the Miss World organization is a major donor to charities. So Nepal was not represented at the Miss World pageant in Johannesburg, South Africa last December. Ms. Russia won the crown and Ms. India was the runner up. A group of narrow-minded dogmatic women, ironically, prevented the Nepali contestants from competing for a better future.
Another glaring illustration is the treatment of widows in Nepal. When the husband dies, the wife’s bangles are broken, the vermillion on her head wiped away and she is swathed in white, never to wear red again. She has to go into hard mourning for 13 days. Some widows even wear only white for a year or for the rest of their lives. A widower can receive offers of marriage the very next day after the death of his wife.
Closer to home, I learnt recently that daughters, once married, have no legal rights on their parents’ property. I assume parents wash their hands off their daughters once they marry. She becomes the responsibility of her husband. In a way, she becomes a member of her husband’s family completely with minimal ties to her own family. I hear murmurings that this law will soon be changed, giving equal rights to sons and daughters. It is yet to be seen whether the fabled “New Nepal” will redress this inequality.
For sure, women in Nepal, as elsewhere in the world, have come a long way. Women’s literacy is over 40%, though men’s is close to 60%. Women in the work-force are visible from the women traffic police to the numerous executives and secretaries, though more of the latter to be sure. There is yet much to be done. The median age at first marriage of Nepali women is only 17. Maternal mortality rate, the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 deliveries, remains at 281, as compared to 110 for Maldives and 92 for Sri Lanka. Only 23% of Nepali women give birth attended by a trained attendant, as compared to 85% for Maldives and 96% for Sri Lanka.
Statistics alone do not tell the whole story. They are merely indicators of deep-rooted social, cultural and development issues. Until we can accept the fact that all babies, whether male or female, are born equal and have equal rights, the status of Nepali women will continue to be defiled. Parents will keep on having children until they have a son who can light their funeral pyre, thus inflating the birth rate. Women are usually not even allowed at funerals. Why should not a daughter light the funeral pyre? If women in history had the courage to burn themselves alive in the funeral pyres of their husbands, courage is in no short supply among women.
Changes in women’s status can come about only with basic attitudinal changes among men, as well as women who cling to out-dated customs. These changes need to be brought about by education, how children are brought up, and legal safeguards for women’s rights. There is still a long way to go for women to achieve equality and equity with men in Nepal. But it is a challenge that cannot be avoided. It has been proven, for example, that educated mothers have fewer and healthier children. So it is not an exaggeration to say that women shape the future.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let each one of us reflect on the true status of the average Nepali woman. Not the socialite or CA member, not the educated and aware, but the simple girls and women in a village. Perhaps they spend most of their time fetching water, cooking, washing clothes, and looking after their fields and cattle, if any. They are illiterate, doomed to a life unchanged for generations. Development, a nebulous term at best, requires many ingredients. A crucial one is that women have to be educated and their status must be equal to men.