7-13 March 2014 #697

Not just half the sky

Let’s not ‘celebrate’ International Women’s Day on Saturday. Let’s mark it as a day of mourning

At a time when all 365 days in the calendar have been ‘booked’ for the international-day-of-this and the international-day-of-that, 8 March has lost a lot of its lustre.

In a society like Nepal where patriarchal values are so entrenched in the ‘men-stream’ culture, every day should be International Women’s Day. The first thing we have to change in this country is the absurd decision to declare 8 March a holiday only for women. This year it is a Saturday, but International Women’s Day should be marked by striving even harder for gender equality in the workplace.

Nepal’s underdevelopment is a direct result of culturally-sanctioned gender discrimination. Superimposing district-wise data for female literacy over the figures for extreme poverty, malnutrition, child marriage, maternal and infant mortality gives us an almost perfect match. Nepal’s poorest districts (east-central Tarai, mid-western mountains) are also where female literacy is lowest, where the caste system is most entrenched, and where other forms of inequality and discrimination thrive. Nepal’s dramatic progress in reducing maternal mortality in the past 15 years is the result of the doubling of the national female literacy rate in that period.

It is ironical that for a country with such progressive legislation on gay, lesbian, and transgender rights, we seem to be regressing in women’s issues. Out of 21 ministers sworn in last week in the new coalition cabinet headed by Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, only two are women and there isn’t a single Dalit.

The titles of articles in this newspaper over the past two years say it all: Nepal’s gender apartheid, Slaughter of our unborn daughters, The war on women, Rape for ransom.   The discrimination against girls in Nepal begins even before they are born, as the rising incidence of female foeticide shows. An estimated 50,000 unborn urban babies are aborted in Nepal every year after parents find out through ultrasound scans that they are girls. This does not include abortions carried out without parents knowing the gender of their babies, half of which are likely also girls.

As they grow up, many girl children are stigmatised within families and by society: discouraged from going to school, fed last, not taken to hospitals immediately if they fall sick, married off young, denied citizenship, abused or trafficked, sometimes by their own relatives.

The preference for boys in many Nepali cultures is a result of deeply held patriarchy: a belief that sons are needed to perpetuate the family lineage, the practice of dowry to marry daughters, the reluctance to allow daughters to inherit property, not allowing mothers to pass on citizenship to the children they raised.

The only remedy for Nepal’s female genocide is to aim for universal enrolment for girls in schools and to revise the curricula to make them more gender-sensitive. Only about 15 per cent of the teachers in Nepal’s high schools are female.

But let those without sin cast the first stone: only 13 per cent of the members of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists are women. And although media is now more sensitive to gender issues, the entertainment media perpetuates the commodification, stereotyping, and stigmatisation of women. Female literacy may have empowered women, but the culture of male dominance in society is perpetuated.

As we reported last year, there is an ongoing rape epidemic in the eastern Tarai districts and the reason it has not abated is because instead of being punished, rapists are rewarded by being made to marry their victims. Gang rapes are performed and filmed with mobile phones to be copied and sold as porn. Trafficking of women for sexual slavery has increased and the only difference is that more and more girls are bought and sold within the country.

Let’s not ‘celebrate’ International Women’s Day on Saturday. Let’s mark it as a day of mourning for the way we mistreat women.

Read also:

Nepal’s gender apartheid

Slaughter of our unborn daughters

The war on women

Rape for ransom