Women’s fight for equal rights in Nepal is the oldest war that will continue indefinitely, unless we succeed in establishing a gender equal society. Here, women don’t need to burn their bras to prove their point, like the feminist movements in other parts of the world. Statistics alone are telling reminders of women’s dismal status in Nepal. 2500 women die every year from pregnancy related complications due to extreme poverty and government neglect; about 5 million women from both the marginalized and high caste groups cannot read or write in Nepal, which has the world’s second highest female illiteracy rate.
To continue, over 70 percent of women face domestic violence in their everyday life. Suicides among women are one of the leading causes of deaths due to domestic violence. Human rights data show that many women are killed by their family members for disobeying their in-laws or husbands. Women are the worst victims of superstitious beliefs and still get mercilessly killed after being accused of ‘practicing’ witchcraft.
Majority of the extremely poor are women who do not have access to even basic resources. Less than 20 percent of women own houses, land or livestock. There is no parity between women employment and their incomes. Women comprise 30 percent of all paid workers against 70 percent males. Their contribution to national GDP has never been calculated, despite the fact more women are engaged in farming, livestock, household economic activities and maintenance work than men.
Statistics that reflect the ominous stories of Nepali women are endless. Women’s exclusion, discrimination and human rights abuse defies all barriers of caste, class, ethnicity and religion. However, all is not lost. There is some light at the end of the tunnel in the form of our new constitution. Although uncertainty continues to loom over when it will be adopted, the silver lining is this will be the first gender-sensitive constitution in Nepal’s history.
A beacon of hope was lit in 2008 with 197 women from 20 political parties joining the Constituent Assembly. The 33 percent female representation in the assembly set Nepal’s record as the country with the highest proportion of women parliamentarians in Asia. This impressive number, though a great achievement in our political history, is not enough. Men have to play an equally enabling role in achieving a gender equal society and for that, their support for progressive legislations is most crucial.
Constitutional and gender experts around the world, especially in African nations that continue to struggle for women friendly constitutions, have lauded Nepal’s proposed gender sensitive constitution. Except for the most contentious issue of citizenship, most of the agenda prepared by the women’s caucus has been received with political consensus.
Speaking to this author, the members of women’s caucus said that they left no stone unturned to cover each aspect that was deemed discriminatory against Nepali women. Besides the rightful demand for women’s appointment in diplomatic missions, equal quota in every government body and judicial service, the caucus has also worked out intricate details of the socio-economic and revenue sharing issues.
For the first time, the state would legally recognize the economic value of women’s work in both the household and agriculture. Among South Asian countries, Nepal has the highest percentage - nearly 90 percent – of rural women engaged in agriculture. They also contribute 70 percent of labor in livestock rearing, in addition to household-based economic activities and household maintenance. A special constitutional act should be drawn up to mathematically calculate household work as part of national gross domestic product.
There is often cynicism about how far the country will go in implementing the laws because even the existing legislations that are enough to protect women are not enforced effectively, especially on issues of domestic violence, reproductive health rights, marital rape and property rights. But the new constitution is definitely a stepping stone and may just be the turning point for Nepali women, especially those living in the most remote and poverty stricken villages where they have no access to legal aid or law enforcement agencies to protect them.
The members of women’s caucus should work together to make sure that the proposed Federal Women’s Commission has adequate powers to implement laws and legislations and has a sufficient budget allocation for women’s development. Merely enacting laws is not enough, especially in the case of Nepal. To ensure effective enforcement of these laws, we need strong implementing bodies with adequate budgets. We also need to empower the already existing local women development offices across Nepal, who currently have no real powers. Local woman development officers often rely on local NGOs to help them due to insufficient manpower and low budgets.
We signed the UN Convention on the ‘elimination of all forms of discrimination against women’ (CEDAW) in 1991 but continue to remain a country with one of the worst records of gender discrimination. Nepal has come a long way to become a part of the global women’s liberation movement. A lot has changed for women’s rights around the world ever since Englishwoman Mary Willstonecraft wrote the first feminist treatise, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,’ in 1792. But Nepali women are still struggling to fight even for the most basic rights and convince the primarily patriarchal society that they are equal.
“Remember the ladies,” Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States, during the making of the world’s oldest constitution in 1776 as a reminder that women shouldn’t be forgotten while writing the first constitution. Those three words have become immortal for every woman who has fought for greater inclusion in every constitution drafting process. This is something our male politicians should remember at all times.