4-10 July 2014 #714

A New Nepal also rises

Nepal’s rural women are holding up more than half the sky
Rubeena Mahato
In Kathmandu’s stagnant air, things stay predictable and banal. It is hard to stay motivated in a job which brings you face to face everyday with everything that is wrong in the country.

Politicians say the same things, reporters regurgitate them, and editors have run out of ways to say the same thing in different words. My big fear is that I will still be writing about CA III two years from now.

When the cynicism gets infectious, I pack my bags and head out of the capital, and almost always my faith in this country and its incredibly resilient people is restored. In the small towns and hamlets of the hills and Tarai, Nepali women are at the frontlines of change, increasingly assuming more decision-making roles in their families and communities.

Partly it is because the men are missing – away in the Gulf or India for work. Women-headed households are the norm, and while this has increased their workload, it is transforming traditional gender dynamics.

The Agriculture for Food campaign honoured 22 women farmers in Kathmandu recently. They came from all over the country and had overcome great odds to become model farmers and leaders in their communities. Their husbands are away in Dubai, Punjab or Saudi Arabia and most were raising their children alone, and doing well.

Tankamaya Magar from Morang ploughed her own fields even though it is not socially acceptable. Rajkumari Sada (pic, above) from Mahottari broke social conventions and overcame discrimination for being from the Musahar community.

Surja BK from Dadeldhura used her success as a vegetable farmer to abolish the chaupadi system that consigned women to the cowshed every month. The superstitious believe that bad luck will befall the family if the women are not banished: cows will die and harvests will fail.

“I demolished the chau goth, used the income from selling vegetables to buy a cow, and consumed its milk when I was menstruating just to prove that the cow couldn’t die. I forced my neighbours to believe me,” Surja BK said.

Rajkumari  was ecstatic that she could afford to send two children to school, build a bhakari and a new latrine. Kashikala Tamata from Mugu recounted how she was the first Dalit in the village to grow vegetables and how life is now much different from when her family had to forage for food. Women now do much more of the work in the farms than men, but only a tenth of Nepali women own land. National agricultural policies are not made with women farmers or their priorities in mind.

These women farmers and many more like them have turned their lives around with little or no help from the government. Most of Nepal’s progress has happened not because of, but despite the government. How much further ahead would we have been if politicians displayed more integrity, if we had better governance and the central government didn’t interfere and sabotage community-led initiatives.

There is a tendency in over-indulged Kathmandu to dismiss the work of non-profits and rural cooperatives. While they could be more transparent and inclusive, local NGOs, women's groups and community forestry user groups have been central in bringing about the small changes we see across rural Nepal today.

There is also sweeping criticism of foreign aid for being wasteful and encouraging dependency; but outside help in education, health, skill-development and empowerment of women has paid off.

Granted, we don’t have roads and airports and high-rises and other trappings of growth, granted the economy is stagnant, and we continue to be one of the poorest countries in the world. But there is a great social awakening unfolding across Nepal right now.

Six years ago, as a young reporter, I travelled across the eastern Tarai districts of Bara and Rautahat talking to Madhesi women who were the first in their families to venture out of their homes. They were learning to read and write, had enrolled their girls in schools, had obtained land ownership and were contributing to family income. 

The 22 women farmers honoured recently spoke of similar struggles, and broke down when they shared tales of the hardships they overcame. They are all proud of their achievements: having the money to send their children to school, becoming the primary breadwinner, owning a piece of land and earning social acceptance and respect.

The women of this country have quietly taken charge. If only there was elected and accountable local government, a more responsive and caring political centre, and elected MPs who are not preoccupied with doling out Rs 50 million to each other, this country would finally rise. 

Read also:

Ruby in the rough, Mallika Aryal

Nepal’s gender apartheid, Deepti Gurung

Don’t fix what ain’t broke, Rubeena Mahato

Homemakers to heroes

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