Nepalese Women at the Crossroads: Which Road to Choose?
Nepal is one of the smallest and least developed countries in the world yet rich in diversity in geography, culture and social system. Nepal has above 100 castes and ethnicities, over 90 languages, various cultures and traditions. This diversity has brought severe disparities between men and women. The geography of the country has restricted physical mobility of women within their locality. Today more than 80% of the total population live in rural areas, where 60% are women who undertake 66% of the agricultural labor and has contributed 40% of the total GDP. However, their work has neither been acknowledged nor recognized.
They have little access to the economic resources they generate. Although the agricultural sectors employs majority of the labor force, a part of the population in rural areas is unable to afford their basic needs itself, modern amenities aren’t anywhere close to available. In every society, men and women are considered as equals. However, this belief is far away when it comes to practice in Nepal. Nepalese society has created a distinct role for men and women since its formation. Men and women have different roles, norms and opportunities. Women especially in rural areas work more than 15 hours -From early in the morning till late night, they’re involved in domestic chores and agricultural work too. Still their work have not been acknowledged and recognized.
The girls are expected to help their mother from an early age and are detained to the 'inside world'- to learn the household drudgery to be a perfect 'home maker'- dutiful and loyal wife, loving mother, subservient and service provider; while boys are prepared to live in the 'outside world'- to involve in productive work- work that generates money in the form of salary, wages or income decision making etc. In many families this discrimination has been accepted as a culture of the family. Women especially in rural areas are forced to accept this strong and unjust social structure with silence. Since they are born, they are made to believe that these extreme prejudices are their fate and ensue from their „bad deeds‟ in the previous life.
In Nepal, most of the parents still strongly prefer sons over daughters because the society recognizes sons only as their child and gives full rights only to sons to carry the family name, perform death rituals and rite. Likewise, sons are considered as insurance for parents in their old age. As a result, parents prefer to wait just to give birth to a son (dhilo paye, chhora paye) in the name of preserving traditional customs. It is widely believed in “traditional families” that the birth of a son paves their way to heaven (chhora paye swarga jaane), therein fosters the derogatory attitude towards daughters. This obligates many women to give birth until they have a son. In this case, their bodies are treated like child bearing machines. These disparities still prevail in Nepalese society regardless of the feminist movement and their efforts to challenge the Supreme Court to take initiative in eliminating gender based inequalities.
Socio-cultural preferences and poverty have also contributed to increase the death of rural women during the complication in pregnancy and child delivery. Most health care services are available in cities and towns and are beyond the accessibility and affordability of rural people. Alternatively, the local health centers which are accessible (generally located in distant places) even lack sufficient common medicines. Modern medical equipment and health experts in rural areas are far from the imagination of local people. As a result, rural people are forced to believe in/rely on local traditional healers.
Many families in rural areas still hold a negative attitude towards women’s education that not only keep women in a lower status but also restricts them from greater participation in social, political and economic activities. A son’s education is considered important, and even if daughters are sent to school, they are sent to government (public) schools where the tuition till secondary education is free and the exam fee is very minimal, considering daughters to be given away as a “gift” in marriages in the name of a traditional practice called kanyadaan. Therefore, investing in daughters‟ education is seen as a disincentive for parents. Equally, other contributing factors for restricting women from attending school are: excessive workload of the households, poor economic conditions of parents, unaffordable education fees, lack of toilets, lack of female teachers and other facilities. Thus, girls are often left behind through socio-cultural practices from equal access to education.
This illiteracy has lagged women far behind men in access to material resources such as property including home and land ownership. The central bureau of statistics shows that only 10.84 women have access to land ownership compared to 89.16% of men. It also reveals that women consisting 50.04% of the total population barely has 5.51% of home ownership. Until 2002, women were not allowed to transfer citizenship to their children. Citizenship is one of the fundamental legal documents to buy land but rural people especially women are not even aware of its use and their rights. This lack of awareness has deprived their children from various social benefits that are provided by the states and agents.
Having born and brought up in this type of environment, the question that often comes to my mind is Who is responsible for this situation of women? Women who work more than 15 hours are often blamed for not doing anything and beaten by their partners. Their work is neither recognized nor acknowledged by the family and the society. And now, I finally believe, that we've reached the Crossroads.
The path now, is ours to choose. And we have to choose wisely, because every crossroad holds an unknown path, an adventure perhaps, or the road to hell ….. But be forewarned, there is only One road to Heaven, and there are Nine to Hell!
A woman, in many places, is treated with respect and love, like a Goddess even. I wish that there comes a day when this comes true in Nepal too, then there will be bliss, Nepal will no more be blue.
This article was originally published under the theme Nepal exclusive in IU e-magazine (www.iuindia.com) from India on November 20, 2011.