We stepped out into complete darkness. A few people reached in their bags for headlamps and flashlights. The night was quiet as we began walking into the village. Slowly a crowd of people accumulated around us as we walked along a narrow dirt road between small huts made from straw and mud. It was a surreal experience being led through this village, peering into peoples’ homes, essentially examining their way of life. We seemed to be well received and those around us open to our presence and happy to have us. The pinnacle moment was when we reached a fire where a woman, several children, and a couple of men were sitting around for warmth and our professor, able to communicate in Hindi, began speaking to the woman. With the crowd starting to push in, I decided that to better hear the conversation and make room for the others, I would kneel down. This simple action allowed me to feel so much closer to the woman and her story. She is a Dalit, has eight children but only her oldest son goes to school. Her oldest daughter, who is around twelve or thirteen, had just been married. She came from India, but does not know how long ago or how old she is. To get to work, she walks thirty minutes to a field where she is paid in rice. Whatever she brings home to her family she has to work off the next day. Her situation, along with many other women similar to her, is the personification of what challenges continue to confront gender equality.
These challenges were supposed to have been eradicated when the Maoists, who fought on the basis of equality and empowerment for marginalized populations, gained power after the war. When it was time to negotiate peace and build the country after the war, women slowly were sent back to the sidelines and nation-building was left to the men. This marginalization continues today, despite the Maoists rise to power and despite several reforms initiated during the negotiations for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.This disparity was apparent from the beginning of our journey in Nepal. Those who conducted the meetings in most organizations that we visited, even those focused on women’s issues, tended to be all or majority men. On some occasions we would visit organizations that would have one or two women in the room, though they wouldn’t speak during the meeting. This troubled me, regardless of my knowledge that dealing with women’s issues without including them is common in many countries’ peace processes and transitional periods. The historically rooted cultural norms surrounding Nepali women, from shaming and isolation during menstruation to marriage practices and customs, has created an environment where women are unwilling or unable to participate in public life-precisely what many women in the war were fighting against. The limited involvement of women in organizations today is indicative of the marginalization of women and how little has changed from the historical practices discouraging women from participating in public life.
To bring more women into the public sphere, reforms are beginning to occur that allow increased participation in political, social and economic decision-making. These reforms include the establishment of a 33 percent reservation (quota) for women in the Constitutional Assembly, the creation of the Ministry of Women, Children, and Social Welfare, and efforts to promote the status of women. Unfortunately, knowledge of these reforms, including newly gained rights, is taking their time to reach the general population.
As we heard in several stops, rural districts tend to be disconnected from government policies due to a lack of effectiveness on the part of the government to spread awareness of changing policies outside of the central Kathmandu Valley. This disconnect was observed while talking to people in various organizations, not only when discussing gender inequality but also regarding Dalit empowerment and rights, human rights, and justice. In a meeting with the President of the District Alliance of Women Human Rights Defenders, who is also one of the women members on the Local Peace Committee in Liwang, we were told about how women need to change their attitudes towards the men in uniform because the “women here, when they see police officers, are scared of them and blame them for killings and rape during the war.” She also stated that there were 10 women in the 563-person police force in Rolpa. I found this surprising since I assumed women in Maoist influenced areas would be more involved in the army and police forces as they were during the war. After more questioning, it appeared as though our interviewee was skeptical about relaying her personal views if they were at all contradictory to the views of the men in the room. Towards the end of her interview she told us that her work was constrained by lack of funding from the government.
In contrast, we met several other women who hold leadership positions in their work and are vocal about issues concerning women. The first place we met such women was in Kathmandu, during our meeting with the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC). Two women led the meeting and answered, with the help of several peripheral women, our questions with confidence. The women working in the organization were committed to issues such as migration, food security, domestic violence, and health. I was able to gain an understanding of the challenges and opportunities for women from this first meeting that I then compared and contrasted with in our later meetings in the districts.
At the Three Sisters Trekking Company in Pokhara we met several women, including two of the three women owners, who are working to empower women through education and employment opportunities. The company employs women from all over the country to be trekking guides in the tourist hot spot. They provide them with training, a salary, housing and gear for the first six months. Being employed at the trekking company gives women a skill they can use to build a career in the tourism industry. They also encourage the women to obtain further education after their employment and even provide them with scholarships to do so. The three sisters who founded the organization are working hard to empower women to work in a male-dominated market. They are beginning to change how families and their communities perceive women.
By countering the stereotype that women are without agency and have little to contribute, women are working to prove to the Nepali people that structural imbalances can be transformed. Despite these efforts in the war, women still face multifaceted challenges prohibiting them from being fully equal participants in society. A lack of urgency among the general population is problematic and if women’s rights are not fought for and policies and awareness campaigns launched, it is far more likely that women will be left behind.
Sasha Sleiman was in Nepal for a two-week field course titled “Challenges to Peacebuilding in Nepal” led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Sasha’s blog is part of a series of reflections by Dr. Iyer and her students on the challenges to building peace in this country after a decade long war. -Ed.
About the author: Sasha Sleiman is pursuing her Master's Degree in International Policy Studies with a concentration in Conflict Resolution at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Her interests include a variety of issues related to gender and conflict including women's roles in conflict, conflict resolution, post-war reconstruction and peacebuilding.