4-10 March 2016 #798

Land of our daughters

On the International Day of Women, we salute the millions of women across Nepal who will not have a holiday because they are too busy feeding and raising their families.

Bikram Rai

Nepal is run by men. It is a sign of our dysfunctional patriarchy that Singha Darbar, Baluwatar and just about every government office is populated by men from certain dominant groups. You don’t need to be an activist with an inclusion agenda to notice this glaring incongruity.

However, it would be safe to say that more and more households, communities and cooperatives in rural Nepal are being run by women. With most men gone, rural Nepal has been feminised. Women have more of a say in school and health post management, in forestry and irrigation user groups, and in farming cooperatives. This may be why, despite purposeless governments in Kathmandu, there is still some development going on in the hinterland. This year, the number of girls sitting for SLC exams has again topped the number of boys.

Last year, Nepal made history by appointing a female president, and although Bidya Bhandari has a largely ceremonial role and the widow of Nepal’s respected communist leader isn’t exactly a torchbearer for feminism in Nepal, her appointment was a symbolic boost for women. For the first time in its history, Nepal has a woman head of state. This week three women lawyers were nominated as justices of the Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a ripple effect of President Bhandari’s appointment on other political appointments. The current government of KP Oli, with its jumbo cabinet of 40 ministers, has only five women. The most well-known and influential female Nepali politicians continue to be those who enjoy close personal ties with the top leadership. This is true of all parties: Bidya Bhandari, Sujata Koirala, Hisila Yami, and Onsari Gharti Magar are all consorts or daughters of powerful politicians. While we probably have one of the most gender-balanced parliaments in our history, there are few women in the House who are directly elected, and members from the proportional representation quota are mostly handpicked by party strongmen. We may have women in high office, but their presence is largely token.

The new constitution is undoubtedly more progressive than previous ones for trying to be inclusive, but it gets an ‘F’ for unequal citizenship provisions for Nepali women married to foreigners and the off-spring of single mothers. Despite amendments to certain provisions, the current constitution still makes it difficult (almost impossible) for women to pass on citizenship to their children without their husband’s documents or consent. It is a heavy irony that for a country with the most progressive laws on LGBT rights in the region, we discriminate so directly against our women.

The problem however doesn’t lie only with the law and lawmakers who didn’t see any fault in drafting a constitution that denies more than half its population an important right. The problem lies also in the lack of public outrage against this flagrant culturally sanctioned gender discrimination.

Society is still steeped in patriarchal values, and even women leaders across the political spectrum justify the citizenship provisions because of the belief that Indian men will swarm across the open border to marry our women and become Nepali citizens. The media reflects and propagates this societal paranoia, and a male-dominated and heavily-politicised civil society is largely mute on the issue.

Although female literacy doubled in the last 20 years, women are still held back from exploring their full potential and gaining financial independence. As our columnist Rubeena Mahato writes this week (see overleaf), female journalists are routinely harassed by trolls in cyberspace for their opinions. The attacks are personal, cheap and vulgar and are representative of the attitude of many who cannot accept a woman’s place in the public sphere.

Elsewhere in this special International Women’s Day issue of Nepali Times, we highlight women achievers who have excelled because they were given a chance. Whether they are wushu players or ultra-marathon runners, social activists or educationists, Nepali women have demonstrated that despite everything stacked against them they can contribute to society and make the nation proud.

On 8 March next week, while salaried women all over the country will have a day off millions of women across Nepal will be hard at work, like every other day in the year, to feed and raise their families. We salute these women who hold up more than half the sky.

Read also:

Right fight, International Women's Day Package

Trapped in the Net, Rubeena Mahato

Online violence against women, Sahina Shrestha

Taboo no more, Ayesha Shakya