Combine Nepal’s youth bulge with the statistics on migration, and you come up with a dramatic figure: nearly half the young men of this country are working abroad leaving many villages with only women, children and the elderly.
This male exodus is not a new phenomenon, but the scale of migration today surpasses anything we have seen in our recent history -- except perhaps during the mass recruitment of ‘martial tribes’ into the British Army during the world wars which emptied Gurung, Magar, Rai and Limbu villages in central and eastern Nepal of their men.
Nepal’s biggest item of export over the last centuries has been its young men. Demographers worry about the ‘missing women’ in the population statistics for China and India because of the preference for boys among parents. In Nepal, we now have to worry about our ‘missing men’.
The gender imbalance has many consequences, from a shortage of farm hands and construction labour, to increased domestic violence in families which suffer long periods of separation. Worryingly, there has been a sharp rise in the number of women also migrating to the Gulf and India and this has increased the number of cases of abuse and exploitation.
On the plus side, the 4.5 million or so Nepali contract workers in India, the Gulf states, Malaysia, Japan and Korea send home $5 billion annually, saving the Nepali economy from collapse. The other, less studied, aspect of male migration is that households and community groups in rural Nepal today are being run mostly by women. This may be why, despite a dysfunctional government, there is still some development going on and there has been steady improvement in health and education. For instance, the number of girls sitting for SLC examinations has overtaken the number of boys for the first time this year.
With the men gone, women have more of a say in school management committees, forestry user groups, irrigation committees, village development councils. Women have had to take on jobs traditionally done by men, and while this has increased their responsibilities it has also given them more say than they had previously.
One of the main reasons for Nepal’s underdevelopment has been its culturally-sanctioned gender discrimination. The districts with the best performance in child and maternal survival rates are those with the highest rates of female literacy, and where caste and other forms of discrimination are least entrenched. There is a direct correlation between female literacy and Nepal’s dramatic progress in reducing maternal and child mortality in the past 15 years.
But what we can see is that although there has been quantitative progress in education, we lag behind in quality. Most children can now read and write, but what they learn doesn’t seem to be leading to more balanced gender relations in this patriarchal and culturally conservative society. The average age of marriage for girls has gone up by two years to 18, but child marriages are still rampant. Violence against women is tragically common as recent cases of child rape, immolation of daughters-in-law, and acid attacks on students have shown.
The most glaring example of structural gender exclusion is the refusal of some lawmakers to allow citizenship in the name of the mother (See Anjana Rajbhandary’s story). The other is the inability or unwillingness of Nepal’s powerful to comprehend just how serious the imbalance in the country’s gender representation is. Look at any photograph of the top leaders, and they are all elderly Brahmin men. Of the two dozen ministers in the coalition cabinet headed by Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, only two are women. Only about 15 per cent of the teachers in Nepal’s high schools are female. At last count, just 13 per cent of the membership of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists were women.
Even the Maoist party, which claims to be inspired by Chairman Mao seems to have forgotten his most famous quote: “Women hold up half the sky.” Although women made up more than one-third of the Maoist guerrilla force during the insurgency, today what remains of the UCPN(M) Central Committee is dominated by male comrades.
It shouldn’t just be March 8 that should be marked as International Women’s Day in Nepal. And we shouldn’t be giving women a token holiday on this day. The day should be marked by striving even harder for gender equality in the home and workplace. Every day should be International Women’s Day.
Being Nepali or becoming Nepali?, Anjana Rajbhandary
Corrosive laws, Binita Dahal
Standing above the ground
Living in fear, Tsering Dolker Gurung
Women in business and leadership roles
Not about charity
Five star managers
Shakti Samuha gets French award, Stéphane Huët