Nepali Times
Indecent proposal


Nisha was 22 years old when the Maoists killed her husband and bombed her house. She couldn't even perform the last rites of her husband as she had to flee Bardia with her in-laws and daughter.

For several years now, she has been working alone to support her family in Kathmandu. Whatever she earns goes to her family. In a country where widows are only seen in a negative light, Nisha wants to live in peace with her daughter. She doesn't expect anything from the state or from society except the right to live with dignity.

In the 2009-2010 budget the government announced that it would provide Rs 50,000 to a couple where the man had married a widow. This is one of the most callous, thoughtless and rash decisions the government of Nepal has taken in recent years. As if women didn't already have enough to struggle against. Marriage is a deeply personal decision, and linking that decision to money demeans women.

In Nepali society, widows are considered bad luck, blamed for their husband's passing and are allowed absolutely no rights. Campaigns by women's groups have worked hard against such discrimination and have been successful in many parts of Nepal.

It hasn't been easy for the movement: widows have been insulted, spit upon, beaten up and thrown out of homes. However, they have had small successes and the attitude of people has changed in many places. Fathers-in-law have stepped forward and given red shawls to their widowed daughters-in-law, parents have encouraged their single daughters to go out and learn skills and many widowed women in their villages have been exemplars of change.

When a government makes decision as big as this without understanding the repercussions it proves how short-sighted those at the policymaking level are. By attaching marriage to money the government is making women dependent on men once again. "A man marries me and we get Rs 50,000. Why do I have to be dependent on any man to feel secure?" asks Nisha. Further, the majority of widowed women have kids. In a society where abuse of children is rampant, what happens to the children of these women when they marry? Will the government guarantee that their children will be safe from abuse and exploitation?

The conflict left many women widowed. Government data is limited, but Women for Human Rights (WHR), an organisation that works with single women, says that there are 44,000 widows in the 225 villages of Nepal where it works. If they all decided to remarry, it would cost the government over Rs 1 billion. What about the 3600 other villages in Nepal? Where is the government going to get the money to fund its largesse? And is remarriage the only option for widows? What about those who do not want to remarry?

This is a country where girls are trafficked for Rs 5,000, sometimes by their family members, and by sometimes men who promise to marry them and give them a better life. Rs 50,000 is a big jump from Rs 5,000. What the government doesn't realise is that by attaching money to women, it is indirectly encouraging trafficking.

In other countries widows are respected, provided compensation, health facilities, education for their children and even housing. When the husband of a Nepali woman dies, the government does nothing. Only those single women who are 60 years old receive a pension of Rs 500 a month. Most women don't even know about this, and with an average life expectancy of 66, can hardly count on the pension as old-age support.

Providing monetary compensation has its limitations, especially if the widow has children. The government should be thinking about long-term goals - providing skills training so that single women can go out, look for a job and bring home income every month. It should also provide access to education for the children of widows.

Due to pressure from groups such as WHR the implementation of the marriage bonus hasn't started. WHR is in dialogue with policymakers but if push comes to shove they say they will come out into the streets to protest. The government may have lost its way, but thankfully our women's movement is right on track.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)