Bidhya Devi Bhandari became the first female president in Nepal’s history on 29th October. Katie Wand discusses the implications for gender equality.
Nepal ranks low on the gender inequality index, as do most other south Asian countries. This is reflected in a lack of opportunity for women, social oppression, and wages that are on average 57% lower than those of men. Despite improvements in gender equality over the past decade, disparity between the sexes remains deeply engrained in daily life.
Nepal is a nation beset with traditions, predating its unification that took place in the mid 1700s. Nearly 85% of its population is Hindu, (with Buddhism as its second most adhered religion) and many Nepali practices and traditions are based on ancient Hindu texts, many of which subordinate women. Although Nepal grants equal legislative rights to men and women, in practice these rights are seldom realised, due to the overwhelming presence of Hindu influence that resonates Nepali culture.
One such Hindu tradition is Chhaupadi. Chhaupadi is the practice of prohibiting menstruating women from participating in normal family activities for the duration of her menstruation, due to the impurity associated with a women’s period. It is common for girls and women to be banished from the household for 5 days each month, and to be forced to live outside of the family home during this time, either in a shed or stables. Although banishment tends to be exclusively practiced in rural and remote areas these days, even progressive households in Kathmandu and other major and modernizing cities put restrictions on their menstruating family member; contact with male or elderly members of their family is forbidden, as is entering the kitchen or eating certain food groups during menstruation. The stigma attached also means that many girls miss 4 or 5 days of school per month due to both shame and a lack of proper sanitation products. Menstruation is just one of the aspects of Nepali culture that serves to hinder women’s progression.
There are other more subtle barriers that women face. Literacy rates are significantly higher amongst males than females in Nepal, as it is customary to choose educating a son over a daughter. In many families and communities, although it is not openly admitted, the expectation of a woman is to produce a family and perhaps bring in a dowry. Education fails to become a primary priority. A lack of education matched with a patriarchal society in which the opinion of a man is categorically worth more than that of a woman, women’s voices often go unheard, and their needs unmet. A study conducted by Nepal Peacebuilding Initiative concluded that women were often reluctant to express themselves in the public arena. This was particularly noticeable after the Nepal earthquake of 2015. Women were not involved in the relief distribution process, and were commonly excluded from communication and information dissemination. As women typically run Nepali households, the lack of acknowledgement of women’s suggestions with regards to the need of the community led to a blatant misalignment between what was needed and what was distributed.
However, according to legislation men and women are equal citizens. There is even a quota system in place to ensure that a certain number of government positions be filled by women. This is surely promising. At least legislation, although seemingly ineffective, is looking in the right direction. Or is it? The fact this legislation has existed for many years and the situation remains almost unchanged is surely cause for concern. If oppression is not the outcome of discriminatory legislation, we must look elsewhere for its cause; perhaps oppression should be accounted for on a more deeply rooted, impenetrable level.
Nepali culture is strong and inescapable; it seeps into all aspects of the very communal way of life in Nepal. It is this deep-rootedness of Nepali culture, unchanged for centuries, that works to hinder women’s true emancipation.
Perhaps the presidency of Mrs. Bhanderi will encourage the change of attitudes, and the enforcement of safeguard policies to ensure that gender equality is realised. However, doubts remain as to how effective one woman can be in a parliament dominated by men. There is speculation as to whether a female presidency is just an ostentatious display of inflated progress towards so-called gender equality. Only time will tell. A cultural heritage of female oppression may prove more difficult to overcome than Mrs. Bhanderi had hoped, and may take many more female presidencies in Nepal to be accomplished.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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