(Published in "Enterprising Women" by the Federation of Women Entrepreneurs' Association Nepal (FWEAN), 8 March 2013)
8 March is International Women’s Day. This day is observed around the world each year to celebrate the achievements and gains made by women and to focus on further steps to be taken to work towards equality for women. International Women’s Day also provides an opportunity for communities to recognise and celebrate local women’s achievements and the contribution they continue to make to their area.
Worthy of note are two Nepali women who have recently been awarded CNN Hero awards. One of the 2012 CNN Hero of the Year was Pushpa Basnet, just 29 years old, whose NGO – Early Childhood Development Center – supports children so that they do not have to live behind bars with their incarcerated parents. Since 2005, she has helped more than 140 children. Anuradha Koirala, social activist and the Founder and Director of Maiti Nepal “Mother’s Home” in Nepali, a NGO dedicated to help victims of sex trafficking won the CNN Hero of the Year Award in 2010. In addition, a two-year grant of $500,000 was provided to Maiti Nepal by the United States government. She has also received the Courage of Conscience Award from The Peace Abbey in Sheraton, Massachusetts in 2006. The good works of exceptional Nepali women have been recognized internationally indeed.
But the war for women’s equality and an end to Violence against Women continues. There is an on-going Movement for Justice and Rule of Law also known as the “Occupy Baluwatar” movement which is in its 65th day as of the time of this writing. The cases of Sita Rai (names changed) who was robbed at Kathmandu’s international airport and raped subsequently; Chori Maiya Maharjan who has been missing for a year; and the mysterious death of Saraswati Subedi, among other cases, have been highlighted by this movement as it protests daily near the Prime Minister’s residence at Baluwatar. Men make up a substantial number in these rallies, and they have even protested wearing women’s apparel in solidarity with the latter. As recently as 14th February, there is news about a 12 year old girl raped in Siraha district.
Outdated tradition plays a large part in the repression of women. There still remain communities in western Nepal who observe strict 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. Some of these customs are “talibanesque” in their narrow-minded out-of-date severity.
Another glaring illustration is the treatment of widows in Nepal. When the husband dies, the wife’s bangles are broken, the vermilion 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.
Daughters, once married, have no legal rights on their parents’ property. I assume parents are supposed to 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. There are 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, there have been improvements for women in Nepal, as elsewhere in the world, in certain areas. Women’s literacy, ages 15-24, is 60%, though men’s is 81%. Maternal mortality rate, the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 deliveries, has decreased from 281 a few years ago to 170. Comparative figures: Sri Lanka – 35, China – 37, USA – 21 and Singapore – 3! Still room for lots of improvement. The median age at first marriage of Nepali women is still only around 17, exceptionally low. 23% of Nepali women aged 20-24 still give birth by age 18. Women still have more than 3 children; the poorest fifth have over 5 children while the richest fifth have closer to 2 children. Only 11% of Nepali women are attended to during birth by skilled personnel.
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 ex-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. ###
Source of figures above: Population Reference Bureau