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COVER STORY

 
INTERNAITONAL WOMEN’S DAY
On Long March

For over a hundred years, we have celebrated the International Women’s Day, taking place every March 8, all over the world. The first women’s strike took place in New York on that day and a few years later it led to the inception of International Women’s Day (IWD). The women took to the streets that day to protest against poor working conditions in the textile industry.  So began the struggle in Western countries for women’s emancipation and to end discrimination against them. But, what about the struggle of women in Nepal today? Since 1975, Nepal has been celebrating IWD along with the international community, using slogans for equal rights in all spheres of society. Now, out of 601 members of the Constituent Assembly, 33 percent are women. Despite so much of progress, the status of women is yet to change. What is lacking then?

By Lara Suykerbuyk

Last week a mob killed a woman on charges of being a witch. This occurred in Chitwan, 100 kilometers southwest of the capital, Kathmandu.  Similarly, a group of villagers physically assaulted a woman in Sindhupalchowk. Widows are seen as witches in Nepal and sometimes face horrendous repercussions – they are not allowed to wear red, the color of life and passion.   

Nepal is one of the most significant recipients of international financial aid in South Asia.  This funding has helped the country to make many improvements in the realm of women’s empowerment. But still, much progress is needed. In the last three decades, the lifestyle of women in Nepal has gone through many changes. However, the change mostly happened in the urban areas. The lifestyles of urban women living in capital Kathmandu and rural parts of Nepal are very different and there is a wide gap between them.

In terms of access to health, justice and education and rights, urban women get enormous opportunities, whereas rural women are still far behind.  Nepal’s women literacy has gone up. Half a dozen of laws and regulations are already enacted to protect the rights of the women but the woes of rural women are yet to be reduced.  Women are still bearing the entire burden in rural parts of Nepal. Various studies conducted by national and international organizations have shown that Nepalese women are the most vulnerable. Whether the impact relates to climate change or male migration, the women suffer. When a Nepalese male goes abroad to work in a foreign country, he earns money for home, but then, sometimes, he also brings HIV back home. When a man goes away, the women have to bear all the responsibilities.

 Dr. Meena Acharya, a senior political economist and feminist, agrees that progress is happening: “Women’s movement on the whole is undergoing a rapid fundamental transformation; along with the changes taking place in governance structure and political representation, it is focused on proportional representation, empowerment through affirmative action, freedom from violence, operation strategies, regulatory enforcement and capacity building.

Yet the women of Nepal still face a wide range of discriminatory practices that cloud their entire existence. For one, poverty overwhelmingly has a woman’s face. The World Food Program estimates that 60 percent of all chronically malnourished people in the world are women and girls. The major cause of this disparity is gender inequality; therefore, countries with the highest level of hunger tend to also have very high levels of gender inequality. In Nepal, more than 25 percent of the population lives under the national poverty line. According to the Human Development Index, Nepal ranks 138 out of 169 countries.      

The country, which is home to the Himalayas, is a patriarchal society and most marriages are still arranged at a young age. As a result, a woman has little to no control at all about her life partner or about the direction she wants to take in her life. She is expected to live with her husband’s family and is responsible for traditional roles such as taking care of the children and contributing to the family income through often back-breaking labor in the fields. Nevertheless, some strong independent women respect their family’s will to marry and adjust their life as the culture dictates to them. 

Unfortunately, women have less access and control over resources like property rights and services like health and education in this male-dominated country. These disparities diminish the capabilities among Nepalese women, worsening female poverty and leading to discrimination and violence.   

Since 2002, many legal changes have been made to protect Nepalese women. For example, a law that year was enacted that serves to pass property to widows on the death of their husbands. The problem in Nepal is that there is a wide difference between a law being written and whether it is actually enforced. Polygamy is also illegal, but its practice is still widespread. The reason for that could be that life for a single woman is even harder than for a married woman and it is a part of Nepalese culture. In 2009, a crime and punishment law was made to protect women who suffer domestic abuse, which can include physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse.

Women’s Foundation Nepal (WFN) says the social acceptance of violence against women is still wide spread; it is a terrible reality for many Nepalese women. WFN cites a recent study conducted by SAATHI which reveals that up to 81% of women in rural Nepal are victims of domestic abuse. In addition, 22% of the men questioned admitted that they think it is acceptable for a man to beat his wife, while 23% of women also believed wife-beating to be acceptable. Much work still needs to be done to change their way of thinking. Women lack sufficient food, housing, rights, and opportunities. Malnutrition is likely caused by the prevailing practice of women eating last at family meals. Many people also suffer from anemia because of the lack of nutrients in their daal bhaat diet, which can be prevented by eating more spinach.

“The lives of women around the world have improved dramatically, at pace and scope difficult image even 25 years ago. Women have made unprecedented gains in rights, education, health and access to jobs and livelihoods. Many countries than ever guarantee equal rights in property , marriage and other domains. Despite the progress, gaps remain in many areas,” writes The World Bank’s World Development Report 2012 Gender Equality and Development. The report argues that closing these persistent gender gaps matters. Nepal’s situation too is not different.

Nepal is one of the few countries in the world where women have a lower life expectancy than men.

The country has different castes and ethnic groups where the women have both a lower status and heavier workloads than men do.   

In the rural areas, one can see women of all ages carrying a heavy loaded basket or ‘doko’ on their back. Similarly, women are also facing many problems due to depletion of water resources. They have to go miles to carry a bucket of water. Likewise, they have to bear all kinds of disasters too. Women work long, hard hours, which you can read on their weathered yet smiling faces. It is always hard to estimate their true age.

Many women suffer gynecological problems like uterus prolapsed because at an early age they have children and for carrying heavy baskets on their backs right after bearing a child. They are often too shy to consult a doctor. Stichting Veldwerk is an organization that helps women through organization of health camps in villages: ”We conduct health camps to address the issue of uterus prolapsed in the villages to give them the opportunity to tell their problems to foreign doctors. We found out that they think that if they tell their problems to local doctors it will be revealed in the village.”                                  

The difference between urban women and rural women is striking. Only 11 km outside the capital of Kathmandu, women are less educated or even not educated at all: “The striking reason is that in the village areas there is a very strict culture where the woman has to stay in the husband’s house, therefore she has a lack of education and lower economic status,” says Stichting Veldwerk. Less than 30 percent of Nepalese women are literate, as opposed to about 57 percent of the men. Education is the base of a good and equal working society; the lack of education must be radically overhauled in order to get this dusty country to clear out its poverty and its let its true beauty shine through. 

Along with government, the UN, INGOs and bilateral agencies have been spending huge resources to defend the rights of women and their health. They are ADRA-Nepal, The Asia Foundation, Action Aid, Apeiron, AIDOS, AVSF-Italy, Educate the Children, Equal Access International, FORUT-Nepal, NDI-Nepal, Oxfam GB Nepal, Planete Enfants, Saferworld, Shapla Neer, CEDPA, The Lutheran World  Federation Nepal, United Mission to Nepal, World Neighbors, CARE-Nepal and Stichting Veldwerk Netherlands

This year, the global United Nations theme for IWD is ‘Connecting girls, inspiring futures’ when  each country and numerous NGOs put women’s needs, rights and accomplishments in the spotlight in their own ways. But will that alone suffice to bring changes and institutionalize them?

Lara Suykerbuyk is intern from Belgium

 
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