Women Empowerment: Cases from Western Nepal 

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By Chitra Raj Bhandari

Empowerment by far encompasses huge share of the development budget of the international donor community. A wide term in its definition, and one, in some instances, that lacks delimitation, when discussed, empowerment is an important factor in institutionalizing and practicing democracy and ensuring rights of a nation, society, community or an individual. Nepal has been been experimenting with democracy for the past six decades with recurring episodes of repression and conflict. During this time frame, like any other developing nations across the World, it has been an obedient and non-aligned member of the international community. But where is Nepal actually at translating these commitments into action at the grass root level? What is the status of women in Nepal’s rigid socio-cultural patriarchy-led family and social structure? Where is it heading in terms of actualizing the goal of achieving gender equality by empowering women? There are lots of such questions and the answer remains elusive, just like the term empowerment and this article tries to explore some dimensions of this multifaceted issue: women empowerment.

 Factors preventing Women Empowerment in Rural Regions:

Economic and Political Resources:

Access to economic and political resources is an important aspect of empowering – be it women or marginalized community or children or a region. A totalitarian setup, that denies access to this components undeniably represses the possibility of empowering individuals or communities. Nepal being in such scenario for much of its modern political history has consequently repressed the aspirations of such communities and individuals seeking equal, if not equitable, opportunities. Politics plays an important role in

Women in the People's Liberation Army, during the ten year long armed conflict in Nepal

Women in the People’s Liberation Army, during the ten year long armed conflict in Nepal

disturbing such regressive and unyielding totalitarian setup – be it in the form of pseudo democracy or in the form of renowned monarchial or to say autocratic setup. The decade-long Maoist revolution in Nepal, that culminated in 2006, brushing aside all the bloodshed, was the political revolution that disturbed the apple cart. This revolt, whose post-war achievements still remain questionable, can be mostly be credited for politically empowering marginalized and repressed sexes, communities, caste groups, indigenous communities and geographical regions, among others.

This political movement not only forced awareness among these communities by exposing them to violent threat or to say by bringing them out of their safe zone, but also armed them with political discourses on marginalization that have challenged many setups across the World. The political indoctrination of the movement’s leaders are credited with political empowerment, though its economic gains remain highly questionable- given the destruction of infrastructure made by it, among other reasons. Discourse theorists claim that peace does not essentially means prosperity or lack of any grievances, it might be a repression. In Nepal‘s case this happened to be true as the otherwise peaceful inhabitants spread across the Himalayas, mountains, ridges, and plains came to the fore with their grievances and demands that they now deem essential if they have to own the nationality of this nation. The peace was deconstructed, and with the peace the repressed thoughts have sprouted in Nepal’s political scenario. It has transformed the landscape. And this has happened for good, at last in terms of moving towards raising gender awareness and empowering women.

Full Kumari Chaudhary, a social activist from Bardiya associated with the Tharu Women Upliftment Center, claims that, “though

Tharu Women in traditional attire during the Maghi Festival, which usually takes place in Mid Jan

Tharu Women in traditional attire during the Maghi Festival, which usually takes place in Mid Jan

women right’s condition lagged far behind in the past. During the recent decade, I have seen many programs aimed at improving women rights situation implemented and I have to say that things for women have certainly changed during the period.” Fulkumari, is from the marginalized indigenous Tharu community, and being a women from the community makes her doubly marginalized. She is aware of this. Despite the efforts of the state at mainstreaming in the recent years, Chaudhary says, “There is still need for translating these promises at the leadership level, at securing women’s participation at the decision-making level, and in removing barriers that restrict women’s right to walk free.”

Violence Against Women (VAW):

Nepal has recently seen rise in reports about women rights abuses including rapes, acid attacks, domestic violence. While some analyst claim the rise in incidences reflects the penetration of media into rural parts of the nation that subsequently has been bringing them to the knowledge of the country, there are some who claim this to be an outcome of the weak implementation of laws related to violence against women (VAW) by the state. Shrijana Tha Shrestha, a social activist associated with the Kailali based non-profit Social Welfare and Support Nepal (SWASON) says that Nepal should focus on implementing VAW laws strictly not only the state but from individual level and has hope for a better Nepal for women to live in.

violence

“These laws [anti VAW laws] should be implemented by the state, government, informal organizations and more importantly by every individual. This cannot be done in a day and neither can we expect to improve the situation immediately but efforts should be continued. Even though such efforts are minimum, say one percent, it has been assisting in improving the situation,” she says while pitching in for more strict laws for victimizers. “I think laws should be stricter. I cannot see morning television news about a kid rape. Rapers should be given harsh sentences, maybe death sentence. If one is sentenced to death, than others will be afraid of committing such crimes.”

Shrijana is not alone to think so. Some of her peers, also think along the same lines. “Rapes and other such crimes are being committed by persons who know it very well that what they are doing is wrong. I know I should not burn a women, but I still do that for revenge or any other purpose. Having strict laws can help us in addressing these issues,” Mohammad Ayatollah, a social activist associated with Nepal Red Cross and Youth Peer Education Network, Surkhet said.

The situation is dire in terms of implementing laws that Nepal has already in place. Shailesh Shrestha, an expert on gender issues and a social activist in Nepal associated with Shtrii Shakti (S2), claims Nepal has some of the best laws to protect women against various types of violences. However, these are not implemented. You must have seen it in the recent news, where it was reported that the verdict of district court on a rape case is challenged by the Appellate court, and even if the Appellate court upholds the lower court’s decision, such cases remain in limbo at the Supreme Court. Moreover, such cases are hyped in media and discussions are held on it when they are the district court, but when these very cases are taken up at the higher courts, they loose support around. Provisioning death sentence for such crimes is not necessary. Implement existing laws, i think, are sufficient to control such crimes.”

Elaborating further on the ways to address concerns of rights and marginalization of women, Shailesh claims that “changing our mentality” towards the women and gender fundamentals is important. And he too is not alone to think so. Praveen Nepali, a social activist associated with the Grameen Samaj Nepal, (GSN) Jajarkot opines, “Awareness is an important dimension in empowering society. Along with continuing focus on that, skill development programs can assist in strengthening women in Nepal. I have seen that educated women, even if they are poor in economic terms, are perceived respectfully than illiterates. Providing skill development trainings along with educating them and making them aware of their rights can be helpful in holistic development of women.”

Patriarchal control over freedom:

Another factor, which by far is the most important, is lack of awareness among the male members of the family about the need for

Local theater group skillfully combines theater with politics to explore gender-based violence in conflict-affected communities.

Local theater group skillfully combines theater with politics to explore gender-based violence in conflict-affected communities.

freedom for women. Influenced by overarching patriarchal values, much of Nepalese women strive hard for freeing themselves from the boundaries set by the ancient principles of patriarchy. “Many women are trained annually about their rights, empowered with income generation skills, and provided assistance for leading a dignified life by government and non-government organizations. But only a few of them are able to actually materialize their ambition. Most of them never work out for materializing their ambition due to lack of cooperation from their families that are basically under the influence of patriarchy,” Srijana claims adding that, “to improve women’s condition, its essential that male are made aware of the ways they encroach in women’s personal space and the way they restrict her from materializing her ambitions and living a dignified life.”

Nepal has some equitable legal measures and special quotas for promoting them in public service sector and in public education institutions as well. But this too does not seems to be sufficient. “However, this equitable principles are limited to public services and it seems that they are not sufficient for attaining gender equality. These principles and policies should be expanded to cover right from the birth of a girl child so that investment is made in a her education, in her upbringing by her family, in reforming the behavior of a family towards daughter and in the treatment a daughter is treated by the larger society. These, among other measures, can help in alleviating the status of women in society,” she adds.

Insignificant Government involvement:

CDC women studying in shcool_Baraha  8 _Dailekh

Women studying in school with small children

Like any other development programs in Nepal, women empowerment projects have also been hit by lack of government’s ability to channelize international donations and grants in areas that it has identified as crucial to focus. It has been open secret that the donor community has its own priorities to address and in their strive to fulfill their goals, they tend to overlook the needs of the locals, in the areas of their intervention. With problems ranging from irrelevant development strategies to implementation techniques, international donor community has to understand that the recipients do have their own needs and own methods to overcome them. International donor community can definitely help them as facilitators. “First of all we should determine the relevance of any development or change-oriented programs for Nepalese themselves. Secondly, instead of working on the agenda laid out by the donor community, the latter should facilitate in materializing our development and change agenda. And the government or the state should focus on the agenda or the needs of the people rather than that of the donor community,” Shailesh pitches in.

While these strong voices of some of the many activists in Nepal, may not represent the full picture of development scape in Nepal, their concerns, their ideas, their methods, their understanding of the undercurrents in the sector and their zeal to continue to strive for a gender balanced society definitely gives an optimistic picture of Nepal. Though, as claimed by them, the strife for empowering women is gaining momentum in rural Nepal, but the questions still remain in place: How do we counter violence against women? How do we ensure a fair and just society for women? How do we ensure the creation of a society that will uphold universal human rights and translate every word on the paper in practical action? Why gender equality still remains a distant dream for Nepali women? Join us in comments below to figure out possible areas of interventions for addressing these objectives.

The Oslo Times in a an effort to dig deeper into the problems faced by women in Nepal spoke to nine Women and Social Right activists on the issue. The next following pages will take you through four in depth interviews on this issue.

The Oslo Times The Oslo Times The Oslo Times The Oslo Times

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