It was only after Amrita Baskota got married did she realise how different life is
for males in Nepal. Born into a family with five daughters, she had never experienced the discrimination many Nepali girls face in relation to their brothers. But after marriage at age 15, she suddenly found herself saddled with responsibilities. The routine was unvarying: get up early and cook, wash and clean till late into the night, while the men did basically nothing and waited around expecting to be served.
"I did not get the opportunity to compare," says the 36- year-old journalist and activist for woman rights. "After marriage I began to realise how different it was to be born a girl. There were unwritten rules about how I could talk, walk, behave and perform as daughter- in-law."
Although many of those proprieties are rooted in tradition, it also has to do with the fact that Nepal has about two dozen laws that discriminate against women. Among them is one that bars them from inheriting parental property, unless they remain unmarried till the age of 35. That is more than half the average life span of Nepali women. Also they have to return the property, after deducting wedding expenses, if they marry after inheritance. Women can dispose of inherited property only with the consent of male family members.
A bill that could change some of this has been in parliament for over three years but there is still no sign it will become law in the near future. The proposed 11th Amendment of the Muluki Ain is the result of a Supreme Court ruling that instructed the government to table a draft. The ruling followed a petition by two women lawyers in 1993 seeking annulment of laws that contravened with the provisions of the Constitution promulgated in 1990.
"The bill is not moving ahead," said Bidhya Bhandari, MP (UML), herself a mother of two daughters. "It seems held up over petty technicalities." The bill was discussed in the house only after women MPs got together to press their demand. On the last day of the recently concluded parliament session, the bill was sent to the committee which will hopefully make it ready for voting when the House meets again.
One reason for the inaction on the women's rights bill is the disproportionate male-female ratio in parliament. The House of Representatives has a total of 12 women MPs in a house of 205, while of the National Assembly's strength of 60, there are only nine women.
"The politicians are afraid. They argue that the bill will change some long-standing traditions," says Chaitanya Mishra,professor of sociology at Tribhuvan University. "There will be short-term vote losses, yes. But that is no excuse, they have to agree on whether the changes will be good or bad and make a decision."
Even though the draft bill would allow daughters to inherit parental property, they would be required to return the inheritance if they were to subsequently marry. The argument is that this provision would ensure that women, who can also inherit their husband'sproperty, are not doubly propertied. The draft also drops some derogatory words and phrases used to refer to actions associated with women. "Elope", for instance, has been replaced by "marriage", and "daughters" has also been added to every reference the law makes to "sons".
"Something is better than nothing but the draft remains inadequate," says Baskota. "For one, it must allow women to keep inherited property regardless of whether they get married or not."
Not everyone agrees. Opponents, mainly men, argue that allowing women to inherit property would destabilise the social system. They say the law could lead to rise in property disputes between siblings and a further division of the already small landholdings. Some even go the extent to argue that giving property would make them independent and increase infidelity, as Taranath Ranabhat, Speaker of House of Representatives, was reported to have said.
Amendments to the bill registered by members of the tarai-based Sadbhavana Party and the ruling Nepali Congress would require women to return their property to husbands upon divorce, while the communist parties say that sons and daughters should be given equal rights regardless of their marital status.
Although they accept that it represents a step forward, women's rights advocates are not completely satisfied with the draft either. The draft includes stricter punishment for rape, but its definition-vaginal penetration- remains unchanged. Neither does it include, say, harassment or even marital rape.
The draft is also silent on many other issues, such as enlistment of women in the army; registration of personal incidents -births, deaths, etc-which can now be done only under the name of the male head of family; and obtaining citizenship on the basis of a mother's status.
"But something must happen. At this stage we cannot even predict when it is likely to become law," says lawyer Sapana Pradhan-Malla, who maintains that there are contradictions in the draft such as acceptance of daughters as heirsand requiring them to return property after marriage. "The legal rights of women is contingent on her relationship. This is illogical."
Property will help women achieve economic independence, says Chitra Lekha Yadav, Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. "But, our first priority should be education because knowledge and information empower people to decide for themselves."
Agrees one of the women activists, "Giving uneducated women their rights could be taking them only half the way. What would they do with rights if they are not capable of enforcing them?"
She prefers leaving inheritance to the will of parents. The argument being that parents can pass on property to those that take care of them in old age.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala has also publicly expressed that he is in favour of such a system.
Nepal's adult female literacy is less than 25 percent, compared to about 57 for males. There are many communities that prefer to marry off their daughters early-spending disproportionate sums of money, sometimes borrowed, on dowry-rather than invest in their education. In a society where social security does not exist and property is passed on to male descendants, sons are looked upon as old-age insurance. And widespread discrimination in the upbringing of girls explains why Nepal is one of the very few countries in the world where men outlive women.
f The Constitution and citizenship laws prohibit women
to transfer citizenship to their children and their
spouses. A daughter's right to inheritance is
conditional and discriminatory: she has to be 35
years old and unmarried to inherit parental property
whereas a son is eligible to inheritance by birth.
f A widow have no right to demand for a share of
family property, if she is below 30 years of age and is
provided food and shelter by the joint family.
f If a widow does not remain loyal to her deceased
husband's memory she does not have the right to the
property she receives on behalf of her husband.
Hence the law expects her to worship her husband
even after his death.
f If a woman is divorced and the cause of the
separation is herself, neither can she get any alimony
or maintenance nor can she claim any property from
f A second marriage by a woman by giving false
information is subject to be void whereas a second
marriage by a man in similar circumstances is not.
f Even for court proceedings, a woman is not
considered mature enough to receive any summons,
subpoena or court order issued to any member of the
f If a wife has sexual intercourse with a man other
than her husband or if she elopes, she is automati
cally considered to be divorced but the same does
not hold for a husband in similar circumstances.
f Women are deprived of the right to register the birth
of their own child. Such right is vested on the father,
and, in his absence, the male head of the family.
(Adapted from Beijing+ 5 Review: Existing Discriminatory
Laws in Nepal, May 2000)