Celebrating International Women’s Day in Nepal: A Day in the Life of a Nepali Woman
You can also read this blog post on the UK Huffington Post here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/virginia-stuarttaylor/international-womens-day_b_9457246.html
Today the 8th March marks International Women’s Day (IWD), which is celebrated worldwide and is an opportunity to raise awareness of women’s rights and gender equality. Although I recognise the day every year and last year I got involved as a Digital Ambassador for the charity Plan UK’s campaigns for girls’ rights, I have never blogged specifically about women’s rights before now. Is that for fear of being branded as a raging feminist? Or because I’ve never before had a compelling enough reason to write about? I certainly have been affected by gender discrimination (as I’ve hinted at before and which appeared in the press) and even in a developed country like the UK there are still examples of women receiving different treatment from men. Whether that’s the unconscious bias in male-dominated workplaces such as the tech industry (where I work), or in the 19% gender pay gap, or the ticking time-bomb that women face in their 30s but which men needn’t bat an eyelid at, or simply in the fact that I don’t feel safe enough to travel alone as a girl to certain parts of the world – it’s present in even the most developed countries. And while I might not shout about it publicly all over the internet, if you get me fired up over dinner on the subject, you may regret it!
Plenty of girls I know in the UK claim not to be affected by gender inequality, and up until graduation it really can be hard to spot any significant differences. Bar the obvious gender divide in degree subjects (with Humanities being overwhelmingly female and STEM subjects overwhelmingly male), I certainly hadn’t thought about it too much before I left university and entered the world of work. But then the examples and the unfairness started jumping out at me, and the more I read about the situation internationally and debated with friends and at events like One Young World, the stronger I feel it’s important to talk about gender and the unavoidable fact that 50% of the world’s population are inherently at a disadvantage purely down to the absence of a Y chromosome. If you still believe it’s not an issue, then please at least take the issue seriously at an international level…
“Women perform 66% of the world’s work, but earn only 10% of the world’s income, and own only 1% of the world’s property.” – United Nations Development Programme
This year for IWD I’m living and volunteering in Nepal, the third poorest country in Asia and a country where women are at a far greater disadvantage than we Brits in the UK, and suddenly it feels incredibly relevant (if not a physical responsibility) for me to be blogging about gender equality. Here the differences between men and women are simply shocking and virtually no women have true independence in the sense that we recognise in the UK. A key focus of our ICS project here in the Makwanpur region with Raleigh International is to work with marginalised groups such as women and I’m pleased to say we have a full day planned to celebrate IWD, beginning by joining a march between the villages of Bhalu Khola and Dhading organised by the local women’s co-operative, for which we’ve busied ourselves making placards and banners. We’re also promoting the UN’s #PledgeforParity campaign by asking local community members to commit to one of five pledges, and we’re running a poetry, short story and artwork exhibition in Dhading School on the theme of women’s rights, specifically targeting young people in the valley (open to both girls and boys), which we’ll also be displaying publicly tomorrow in Bhalu Khola for passers-by to browse.
One of the elder women in the village expressed some scepticism that a march would do anything at all to progress women’s rights. And no, on its own a march can do very little. But it’s the conversations prompted by these marches, events and pledge campaigns that can make an impact. Through these small steps we hope someone may see a new perspective or understand a new issue they’d never considered before, and at least we’re making it onto people’s radar! Even just through a simple conversation about IWD over dinner with our host family, which began with our host mother stating that she didn’t discriminate between any of her children, my fellow Team Leader Asha and I turned an important page in helping the family recognise that they do in fact treat their two daughters differently from their two sons, in the work and marriage opportunities available to them. To a Brit like me, it’s hard to know where to start with the myriad of inequalities that a Nepali girl faces daily. I thought it best to start by jotting down some of my observations from living in the village of Bhalu Khola, from talking with my 27-year-old in-country Team Leader Asha and from interviewing my 23-year-old ‘mitini’ sister Sharmila (in whose house I’m living for 3 months) about her life and her hopes for the future. Thank you to Asha for translating our conversation.
Division of work between men and women
I asked my mitini about her daily routine here in Bhalu Khola: “I start my day around 5:30am with my personal hygiene, then I get dressed and tidy my room, before cleaning the whole house and our outside space, filling the water and preparing for the day. I then worship the god Krishna in our family shrine and serve tea to all my family, before washing up and going to the fields to pick some vegetables to cook for lunch [lunch is served at 9:30am in rural Nepal], which I cook outside on a fire and serve to my family first before eating myself after them, and then I wash up afterwards. Then in the daytime after I finish my morning household chores I help my parents work in the fields or do some studying, or wash clothes or clean the house a bit more. After 4pm I worship in our shrine again and then I have to prepare tea and snacks for my family, then I wash up and start cooking the dinner and then I wash up after that too, and I go to bed around 9:00pm.”
When working in the field, the women are supposed to do the back-breaking seed planting work, which isn’t considered masculine enough for a man. In addition, most days I see Sharmila’s 48-year-old mother walking to and from the fields carrying enormous loads of 40-50kg of grass or potatoes strapped to her back, heavy lifting that is certainly too much for her tiny frame and dangerous to her spine. She’s one of the twenty or thirty such women I see daily, but have I ever seen a man carry those loads here? Not yet!
Talking about when her two brothers are around (they currently work as migrant labourers in the UAE – a topic I’ll write about soon) she says “they definitely wouldn’t be doing the same household work as me. I have to do every household activity, which the men won’t do. From the kitchen to the field there is a big gender difference, even in big cities as well as small villages, men think that household chores are only done by women”. For a time Sharmila toyed with the idea of following her brothers’ example and moving abroad to Korea to work, but her parents wouldn’t let her, although now she’s changed her mind and is happy to stay in Nepal.
Love marriages vs. arranged marriages
While so-called “love marriages” are on the rise in Nepal, and Asha’s marriage is a good example of a love marriage, the ordinary practice here is still for a girl’s parents to find her a husband in her early twenties and “arrange her marriage”, including the payment of a dowry to the husband’s family (reminiscent of Jane Austen’s 18th century Britain). According to my mitini sister Sharmila, if she herself can find a man of equal caste, religion and economic status that her parents approve of, then her family will permit the marriage. If she can’t, then her parents will propose a suitable candidate to her and she has the right to one veto, but after that she must accept the second candidate. However if she attempts to marry outside of her Brahmin caste then her parents will forbid it. On that note, we asked her mother how she’d feel about one of her sons marrying outside of their caste: “disappointed” was the response, but she’d begrudgingly allow it.
Sharmila is lukewarm about marriage, saying that “sometimes I feel I don’t need to get married and that I want to be independent, but other times I think I do need to marry”. One disadvantage she identified is that “after I get married, I think that the freedom I enjoy here in my mother’s house will be reduced when I move to my in-laws’ house”. Joint families of multiple generations under one roof are the norm in Nepal, and after her marriage Sharmila will have to look after her parents-in-law, by cooking and cleaning for them, doing their washing and working in their fields.
Dependency on men
Nepal’s marriage practice means that upon a girl’s marriage, her father effectively hands over responsibility and decision-making ability for her to her new husband and gives him a dowry in compensation for the burden of looking after his daughter. While no one in my host family defined this as such, I liken this transaction to the ownership of property, and Sharmila described “women as like ornaments or accessories for men”. The concept of a man as head of the house is deeply ingrained, with Sharmila’s mother pointing out that men handle all the money and are the only ones to work outside of the family’s fields in salary-paying jobs. Sharmila even agrees with this point: “Most families have a man at the head of the family and it’s good to have one person to be in charge of all financial responsibilities, better than individual decisions”. When attending a local meeting of the women’s co-operative, Asha and I even witnessed certain women actually argue that girls should have the approval of their father or husband before receiving a micro-credit loan designed to empower their earning potential. It’s not just men’s attitudes that need to be changed here, it’s important to convince the women too.
At our project’s initial community meeting with the village, Sharmila’s mother was one of only two women to attend along with 40+ men – she’s a courageous woman. She commented that the women’s intense workload at home and in the fields prevents them from engaging in community meetings or ward citizen forums, meaning their voices are rarely heard. On the topic of leaving the house, Sharmila wishes she had more freedom to leave the house. It’s not that she has a strict curfew, it’s more that “men don’t want their women to leave the house, and so the women always live in fear if they do go out”. Fear of what, I asked? “Fear of talking to a stranger or a boy and someone else seeing, misinterpreting the encounter and spreading gossip. If a girl’s husband misinterprets these Chinese whispers overheard from other people, then he might kick her out of his house”.
Unbelievably, a baby born in Nepal has no automatic right to citizenship. Only the baby’s father can pass down citizenship, not the mother alone. If the baby is born to a single mother or unmarried parents, then it legally cannot gain citizenship and will remain stateless for the rest of its life, a status belonging to an estimated 4.3 million Nepalese people today, meaning that a woman depends on her husband to bestow the gift of citizenship to her child.
Rules for women during menstruation
Three of Nepal’s four castes (the Brahmin, Chettri and Dalit castes) have very strict rules regarding what a girl can and cannot do during menstruation. For the first four days of her period, a girl cannot enter the kitchen, do any cooking, touch any communal water containers, touch any male members of the family or enter the family shrine or go to the temple. She must eat her meals in her bedroom or outside and ask other relatives to collect water for her to wash. If she does then the whole family must go through Hindu purification rituals for the house. Girls in rural Nepal use fabric pads which they must wash at night when no one’s looking. Similarly they should wash their knickers in private and cannot hang their underwear exposed on a drying line, instead it must be covered by another garment so men can’t see them. The treatment of a girl during her period is similar to that of Dalits, the so-called “untouchable” fourth caste, which officially and legally no longer exists in Nepal, but which in practice is very much still a real attitude held by most of the rural population.
Hopes for the future
Sharmila herself admits that “women have no freedom in Nepal, they are suppressed”, but she is hopeful of change. She wants to be independent and to make her family proud, but she acknowledges the barriers that prevent women from asserting their independence: “some women don’t have that much courage to make decisions, but even for those that do, obstacles somehow come into their path and bring them back to the start. Both men and women hold them back”. What can we do as a society to break down those barriers as a society, I asked? “We need so many things to break down those barriers! We have to be self-confident, have speaking power to raise our voice, we should be honest so that people will trust us, be respectable and do the things that society thinks are respectable, we should be courageous to speak out, and we need improved social work”.
To encourage men in Nepal to treat women as equals rather than as subordinates she says “we need to prove ourselves, prove that we are equal to them and can do the same things that men can do. At the same time, all the family members need to support the girl and help her and allow her to do those things. The whole family must agree”. While I’m impressed by her passion for changing the status quo, I’m conscious that Sharmila isn’t asking the men to change their habits and attitudes, that instead she’s relying on the women themselves to make it happen. Neither is she recognising the opportunity that she could have in local decision-making forums or to petition her government to do more for women’s rights. Part of our work here is to raise awareness of the options for in civic participation and to motivate young people to become active citizens who have a say in their own future at a regional and national level.
Sharmila does want to leave the household and farming work behind, and she’s studying to hopefully work in an NGO or on a social project. I asked her about the future and to consider how she’d like the world to look for a daughter of her own that she may have in future: “I just wish that my daughter won’t have to go through what I’ve been through, I wish that society will treat sons and daughters equally and I want to see a society that allows my daughter to go out, not like now, where a girl is confined to stay in the house. I hope that my daughter will be able to go out and have as much opportunity as a boy”. And if she could be granted one wish for the future? “Right now I just need a job!”