It is not difficult to ascertain that gender discrimination is endemic in Nepali society. According to data gathered by the UN, only 34% of women in Nepal are literate, as compared to 68% of men. In consequence, women lack access to (and control of) information and resources. Most women spend their lives doing hard physical work, as they are responsible for looking after fields and animals, gathering fuel, fodder and drinking water, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children.
Indeed, one doesn’t have to look far to view empirical support for this data. The area surrounding Mahendranagar is filled with lush, green rice paddies and often one can see women performing backbreaking labor while men play football in a neighboring field. Young girls are often compelled to assist in this work, thus missing out on any chance of attending school.
While women face varying levels of exclusion in most countries around the world, in Nepal the plight of women is particularly acute due to religious and cultural norms, rules and regulations. For example, when I first arrived in Mahendranagar I was shocked to learn about the practice known as chaupadi- when a menstruating woman is forced to leave her house and often stay isolated in a dirty outdoor shed, forbidden to touch water and food, or otherwise “pollute” the household. Even in relatively “urban” areas such as Mahendranagar, women are still secluded during their menses and forbidden to eat with other family members.
While there are many groups in Nepali society which have faced discrimination and exclusion due to caste, ethnic or linguistic differences, women by far remain the largest marginalized community in Nepal.
Many Nepali NGOs in the Far-Western Development Region have attempted to address the plight of women (including COCAP network members Women’s Progress Center (WPC) and my own host organization, SWEET-Nepal.) Nevertheless, the problem remains that by and large these unequal gender roles have been internalized by both men and women. Much of the gender discrimination that exists is wrapped up in the differing roles and expectations for men and women.
When pressed on the matter, even those men who are directly involved in combating gender discrimination (whom I believe it is safe to label “well-educated” or more “progressive” than the typical rural inhabitant) admit that women in their family perform the majority of the household work. In my own experience, I constantly have to argue with my host mother (as well as Naam, a young Tharu girl who works for the family) to permit me to make my own coffee and wash my own dishes.
With the Constituent Assembly elections looming, minority groups and excluded communities are the buzzwords of the day. Much of the current political tension and uncertain future of Nepal is tied to the different demands made by these excluded groups (or those who claim to speak for them) and the various pathways to either accommodate or to suppress these claims. Yet the fact remains that women are the ones who really stand to potentially lose out in this process.
There are no radical groups advancing the female cause. No armed insurrections advocating female liberation from patriarchal male tyranny. In fact, on Election Day, many women might be too busy working in the fields, kept uninformed of the election details by their male relatives, or unable to read the newspapers and campaign material to cast their vote, and thus to have a meaningful voice in the shaping of the future Nepal.
Posted By Jeff Yarborough
Posted Jul 20th, 2007