In 1774, Abigail Adams—the second First Lady of the United States—wrote an inspirational letter to her husband John Adams before he became president, “You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator… We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” With the passage of time, John Adams became the second president of the United States of America and his wife Abigail gave birth to six children. Together, they were part of giving birth to a country which has been acclaimed as a beacon of freedom and equality for nearly 240 years, but is still looking to have its first woman president. Just like the story of Abigail Adams in American history, most of the quiet initiatives in emancipating women have been largely ignored in women’s history.
Very often, the lavish conference halls in Kathmandu witness seminars on women that usually begin with words quoted either from United Nations (UN) conventions or other declarations on women. The most forgotten fact is that women’s emancipation in the west or elsewhere was not merely through political or legal declarations tabled by UN elites and activists, but through gradual progress across areas spanning from religion to science. The real emancipation of women has been erratic as well as horizontal in reality. Women movements for equality often arose on uncharacteristic fronts and for different reasons. For instance, a shortage of bread united French women to ignite a revolution in 1793.
In our country, most experts and activists, who have largely been propelled by western funds and have over-dosed on alien ideologies, seek to follow the west without making any effort to uncover women’s nimble footwork at the grassroots level to overcome gender inequality.
In the west, material culture has played a profound role in liberating women. Very few have acknowledged that detergent was an appealing product among women when it hit the markets for the first time in 1901. Similarly, an uninterrupted supply of water, electricity and electric appliances allowed women to save cooking and cleaning time that in turn enabled them to turn time into money by the mid-twentieth century.
Further, the First and the Second World Wars consumed millions of warriors, leaving the women to sustain their economy by themselves, as widows or orphans. On the one hand, the wars unprecedentedly victimized women and on the other, they brought forth surprising new challenges not encountered in history before, allowing women to occupy men’s positions in almost every field.
These experiences from the western evolution of women’s empowerment have proven that granting rights through political means has always been an insufficient tool to engage women in their movement towards greater equality and freedom. Frequently advocated legal and political rights by themselves are insufficient to gain real parity with men.
In many cases, resolutions tabled in the west have had little meaning in a country like Nepal due to their inability to usher in any real change. Most rural Nepali women can neither translate nor understand the essence of imported legal articles; nor has the socio-economic and cultural infrastructure here been prepared for implementing these resolutions.
If we look at our nationwide scenario, the overall situation of women is depressing. With a few exceptions, a majority of them neither have necessary skills nor is there much demand for jobs. The overall rudimentary needs of women are not being met. Public transportation for women is unfriendly and working places are mostly unsafe. Easy availability of schools, transportation, contraceptives, diapers, gas stoves and toilets are vital needs for women, more so than the loudly proclaimed benefits and rights written with black ink on white papers.
Even with a sharp rise in literacy rates, we are not yet enlightened to the point that we can fight fatalism. Have Nepali women ever talked and thought of fighting against cultural inferiority which is equally or more harmful than the political variety?
Women’s current situation is strangely even worse than that of the last generation. We have access to TV sets with almost no helpful programs, phones with no right person to seek counseling from, public health care centers without doctors, roads with no safe transportation, markets with no jobs, water taps with no water and an electric grid without electricity. To understand this better, let us see how many clean toilets have been constructed by the state along national highways in the past 50 years so that women could drink enough water during their long bus journeys without having to worry about not having a clean restroom.
In this modern age, only uninterrupted running water and electricity, better schools and training centers, sound transportation services, an effective legal and administrative mechanism, sound markets with enough job opportunities, free baby care centers, and tax free basic consumable items—especially necessities, will help women become self-sufficient, dignified and empowered.
To win the war against inequality and inequity, genuine leaders of women’s emancipation should not ignore the hidden fronts of equality—religion, culture, science and technology, education, health and basic utilities. Thus, our priorities should focus on meeting women’s urgent needs instead of tertiary ones.
The author is a faculty member at Department of Conflict, Peace and Development Studies, Tribhuvan University