One of the key differences between Nepal and Scandinavian countries is that equality between men and women is a real thing there and not merely a slogan of NGOs or footnotes in job advertisements. In Norway, it was around the 1960s when women began demanding and were given equal status as men. Currently 40 percent of its parliamentarians are women. Working women there lead a life similar to men who have to handle both work and family. Similarly in Latin America, a Facebook post, courtesy of Devendra Raj Pandey, showed how in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, women are running these countries, compared to army generals some 40 years ago.
Globally, it has been seen that the sooner countries provide women with rights and opportunities, the faster they grow out of poverty. The economic development of Southeast Asia is based on the strength of women power. In contrast, many countries in the Middle East, despite their high-income status, have not been able to foster overall social and economic development due to the curtailment of the rights and roles of women.
Of Nepali women
In Nepal, women are the backbone of society, especially in rural areas, working hard in the fields and at home. However, their access to assets and income remains limited. The Shah kings followed their own version of Hinduism, which prescribed male dominance, especially on account of better options you could buy for your future lives in case you have a son to light your funeral pyre. Even now, the pressure on people with only girl children to have sons has not ended. Strangely, the need to have a son seems to be propagated more by women than men. Post-1990, with the growth of a plethora of agencies that made women empowerment their business, a lot of change started to happen. Post-2006, the reservation of seats for women in the Constituent Assembly did help change people’s mindsets.
The best example that one can cite as the potential of women power in Nepal is when one observes women traffic cops checking potential drunk male drivers at late hours. I always ask visitors if they see this happening in their countries, especially South Asia and Southeast Asia. If you visit the vegetable market at Kalimati or in other towns and villages, most of the people in business are women. With more menfolk leaving Nepal for work abroad, women are taking the reins of their families and doing business and owning assets in their name.
However, in Nepal, we have also seen how women empowerment has become a concept to seek rents by establishing institutions to work on it rather than internalise it. We have observed that some activists who work on women empowerment and gender mainstreaming are good at conducting workshops and making speeches but when they reach home, they traumatise their daughters-in-law and treat their sons and daughters differently. We have seen people who have created organisations to work for destitute women, only to treat their own house staff badly. There are many such contradictions that we still see. Unless the whole discourse is internalised and people begin to practice what they preach, it is still going to be a challenge to bring in half of the population onto an equal footing with the other half.
We still have distortions in our legal structure where women are concerned. For instance, when a Nepali man marries a foreign national, it is easy for the woman to get Nepali citizenship but not so in the case of a Nepali woman marrying a foreign national. There are many Nepali women who want their foreign husbands to work and live in Nepal, just like their male counterparts, but hindrances in acquiring nationality and visas have made this very difficult. Policymakers who would love to be chief guests and make keynote speeches on Women’s Day celebrations do not want to delve into these issues.
One of the other key issues to look at is how working mothers, whether they be those working on agricultural lands, in factories or doing blue collar jobs, are able to integrate back to work. Apart from providing a congenial environment for them to take leave to have and tend to their children, their re-entry must be made easy. It is not only important that there be community-based childcare systems but there also has to be programmes that will make their comeback to the job market easier. Especially as more educated women take up jobs, they should not be forced to trade their family roles with their careers. Both need to co-exist.
So it is time that we take the discourse of women power and the role of women beyond the tokenism that we love to engage in. If Nepal’s future is to change, there is a lot to internalise in the way we accelerate the pace of women’s involvement in every aspect of our lives.