Nepalese women defying patriarchy

Nepal
Women

After decades of turmoil, 22 governing coalitions in 26 years, a royal massacre and a merry-go-round of impermanent heads of state, Nepal has started to do things a little differently.

The country is on the precipice of calm. After 10 years of negotiations, the country saw the debut of its first democratic constitution last year. In the end of June, the country saw its first local elections are also underway since 1997, when Nepal was still governed as a patriarchal, monarch-headed society. Provincial and national elections will follow in January 2018.

Determined that its governing bodies reflects the country’s new-found secularism and hard fought democratic principles, Nepal has set quotas to ensure diversity of representation – particularly for female candidates.

The Local Level Election Act of 2017 requires that for every five candidates, two must be women. As a result, there were 20,000 Nepalese women standing for election in the first of two phases out of 50,000 candidates campaigning to lead 283 regions. With each election, there must also be at least one female Dalit candidate. Dalits are also known as the ‘untouchables’ and are the most highly repressed, lowest ranked members of Indian society according to the country’s rigid caste system.

Women in power

One female candidate is Lalita Choudhary. After breaking gender barriers to run her own solar lamp and charger shop – Grameen Urjah – she is also running as a local representative in the rural town of Lahan, in eastern Nepal.

A map of Lahan within Nepal. Via openstreetmap.org
A map of Lahan within Nepal. Via openstreetmap.org

In Lahan, women dress solely in jeweled, brightly coloured saris and are adorned with bangles and gold piercings. The cultural tradition is for women to be owned by their husband’s family. They are expected to stay at home to not talk to other men. A woman holding a career, let alone running a business, is a rarity – especially one that requires travelling, such as Choudhary’s.

Running a solar lamp shop often means delivering products and making sales in person – which often requires talking to men.

‘Individuals are going to say all sorts of things about business women here,’ says Choudhary, who is sat in her small solar shop, wearing a dark blue sari and offering me fresh mango and lemonade.

The shop’s walls are painted pink and display informative posters of smiling families huddled around small, ambient solar lamps. Just outside, there is a white cow tied to a wire fence. Ducks waddle across the front of the shop while a plump hen pecks and scratches near the entrance. Either side of the shop are vast fields of corn and rice. There is evidence abound that most people in this region of Nepal work in agriculture.

Choudhary explains how, in a place dependent on the land, educating customers about the environmental, social and responsible ethos of her solar business helped defeat gender discrimination and won her the respect of her community.

Video translation by Bhokraj Gurung

She decided to start her shop after being encouraged by a company called Empower Generation, an NGO run by women, seeking out other ambitious female entrepreneurs wanting to run their own sustainable social enterprises. It has so far provided 23 Nepalese women with funds, products, business and renewable energy technology training, as well as a network of support.

The assets and encouragement to begin a successful solar business allows women in rural Nepal to ‘give themselves a platform to do something’ says Choudhary. It also has ‘a positive impact on women’, she explains, so that they ‘do not have to depend on men’.

By selling solar, Choudhary’s work also impacts environmental awareness. ‘If even 10 people take action, then it starts. From here, it can make a big change in sustainability and helping the environment,’ she says.

Encouraged by the impacts of her solar business, Choudhary decided to run for local office. Before the local election and the quotas for female candidates were announced, Choudhary says that she was ‘interested in politics’, but did not think her being able to run for office was a likely possibility.

She is running for 'ward member' in Lahan's local elections. Her campaign focuses on replacing uneven sun-baked dust trails with smooth tarmac roads, doubling pensions for the elderly, and increasing access to education. Although local elections are underway in Nepal, the government has not finalised a date for Lahan's elections yet.

‘We want to have a sixth form, and to also have employability training for women,’ she says.

This inclusive, environmental, and socially conscientious ethos is the foundation of not only Choudhary’s political campaign, but also her solar business and livelihood.

Tangible natural disasters and political instability has fostered a hyper-conscientiousness across Nepal. Grassroots, environmentally aware, inclusive development is the only option to cement the nation’s long term, peaceful progress.

Climbing the summit

On the other side of Nepal, in the northwest, is the wealthy, tourist hub of Pokhara. Guest houses, bars and restaurants line the valley strip overlooking Phewa Lake.

Pokhara is popular with tourists from around the globe due to its proximity to the Himalayan Annapurna massif: the tenth highest summit in the world.

A view over Pokhara Valley, Nepal in 2017
A view over Pokhara Valley, Nepal in 2017. © Lucy EJ Woods

Altitude sickness is the most common problem faced by mountain adventurers.

That is, unless you are a woman: female mountaineers in Nepal have no other option but to trek with a male guide, which has often led to ‘hassle and sexual harassment,’ says Lucky Chhetri, owner of Three Sisters Adventure Trekking: a company and NGO that trains Nepalese women as mountain guides.

‘Women were frightened,’ says Chhetri. ‘They were frustrated, disappointed and not happy. So, we came up with the idea to train women as guides.’

At first, other guides and locals rebuked the idea, believing women were incapable of doing mountain treks, explains Chhetri. ‘They’d say: “Oh you poor girls, you should not do this.” But we believe in opportunity, not sympathy.’

Albeit the popularity of Three Sisters Adventure Trekking has grown, the company still faces criticism and challenges, from competing guides spreading rumours attempting to defame female guides, to disapproving locals.

Despite this, in the last 20 years, Three Sisters has trained around 1,200 Nepalese women as mountain guides. ‘People are starting to trust women more now,’ says Chhetri.

The training, income and supportive environment allows women to come out of what Chhetri calls ‘the woman-boundary’, with women often shy and withdrawn at the start of their training. ‘At the beginning, they think: “I cannot do this, I am a woman”. But we help them to lose the fear of what others will think. Then they begin to express themselves; they are smiling and confident,’ she says.

‘Before, women stayed at home and did not want to come out,’ explains Chhetri. ‘Before, it was only men. Now, women and men work together.’

Power in numbers

In Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, Sunita Dunawar sits at her desk. As the executive director of NGO Shakti Sumuha, she is no stranger to the darkest depths of the patriarchal, paternal culture of Nepal. The name ‘Shakti Sumuha’ means ‘group power’ in Nepali, and originates from how Dunawar says she and her colleagues found the strength to start and run Shakti Sumuha: a rehabilitation charity for women and girls that have been trafficked, run by survivors of human trafficking.

More than 7,000 Nepalese women and girls were trafficked to India in 2014. As a result, there is an estimated 200,000 people working in Indian brothels due to human trafficking.

Running a national charity means Dunawar has a packed schedule, and doesn’t have time to hesitate or flinch while retelling her own harrowing experience of being trafficked, which began when her brother went missing.

‘In our culture, sons are very important,’ explains Dunawar. ‘The daughters are less important.’ Hearing her brother was in northern India, the family dropped everything to go find him, and fast.

On the way, two men who were staying at the same guest house as Dunawar and her family offered to share some laddu (sweet dough). After eating the laddu, Dunawar says she has no recollection of what happened next but when she woke up, she found herself in a brothel somewhere in India.

On the first night that Dunawar had ever spent away from her family, a Nepalese woman told her that she had in fact been sold, and was now in Mumbai as a sex worker. Upon hearing this, ‘I felt total darkness,’ recalls Dunawar.

After refusing to work in the brothel, Dunawar was beaten. She was threatened with decapitation and had cigarettes stamped out on her skin. This went on for a month, until Dunawar was sold to another brothel. Here, six men attacked and gang raped her.

‘When I woke up, there was blood everywhere,’ says Dunawar, running her hands over her arms as she speaks. ‘I felt pain all over my body… and then, I accepted it.

‘I wanted to kill myself. So many times I wanted to [commit] suicide… but I had no option for that, no option to escape,’ she says.

Five months later, as part of a mass police raid, Dunawar was rescued along with 500 other girls from across Asia – all under the age of 18.

Dunawar then returned to Nepal and lived with other Nepalese survivors in a shelter home where she co-founded Shakti Samuha, deciding ‘to turn tears into power’.

Despite Dunawar being harassed in the street for four years – with men yelling danta (sex worker) and being ‘looked up and down’ by police – Shakti Sumuha was finally registered as an NGO.

Shakti Samuha now operates in 13 districts, runs five shelter houses and provides counselling, education and work placements for Nepalese women and girls rescued from human trafficking.

Regardless of class, gender or family income, trafficking can happen to anyone, says Dunawar, but the vast majority are girls from poor families, uneducated and of low caste. When rescued, survivors often want to be educated, gain financial independence to rehabilitate and to prevent being trafficked again.

Shakti Samuha teaches survivors sustainable trades, usually in textiles or handicraft. By providing education and vocational training, Dunawar hopes ‘to develop a new generation of independent, confident girls’.

Nepalese women in science

About an hour’s bus ride from Kathmandu is Bhaktapur. As one of the worst affected areas of the 2015 earthquake, most of Bhaktapur’s world famous temples are restricted with white and red tape and ‘do not enter’ construction signs. There are still piles of debris, and empty spaces dot the skyline where homes used to be.

In one of many recovering coffee shops, eating Juju Dhau (or ‘Kings Curd’, a local speciality), are the founders of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (WiSTEM). Binita Shrestha and Pratiksha Pandey were inspired, as teenagers, to develop a series of classes on STEM subjects after noticing a lack of women in their chosen profession.

When Shrestha was 16 years old, she looked around her new computer science class and noticed something: she was the only girl.

‘I was alone. There were no other girls,’ the now 24-year-old explains. ‘It was very frustrating and demoralising.’

When Shrestha met Pandey (now 22) at a university engineering class, the two began researching reasons why there were only a handful of women in their STEM classes.

Their findings highlighted that sexist stereotypes start young with girls lacking role models on how to break through these stereotypes. ‘The way we are brought up is difficult enough as it is,’ says Pandey. ‘Boys live in the same society as us, so they learn the same stereotypes and they criticise girls, trying to make us feel bad.’

‘So many boys tease girls who take STEM subjects,’ adds Shrestha. ‘It is a common problem.’

By piloting STEM workshops in primary schools and convincing their female peers to volunteer as role models, Shrestha and Pandey founded WiSTEM to combat sexist stereotypes in STEM.

Backed by government funding, multiple schools across Nepal now provide STEM workshops and encourage female role models for both girls and boys thanks to WiSTEM. The impact is even being felt in rural areas, where even the most disadvantaged children are being taught.

However, WiSTEM still comes up against gendered assumptions when working with schools say its founders. ‘One school principle pointed to our names on our report and asked us: “Who are these guys with the engineering masters? Who authored the report? I want to talk to them”,’ recalls Shrestha. ‘We told him that those names are ours. It was quite funny actually.’

WiSTEM is aiming to provide lifelong problem solving and critical thinking skills for both girls and boys to eliminate the idea of gendered jobs and skills within current and future generations. As STEM classes also happen to offer the very skills this and new generations will need in order for Nepal to fight climate change, the timing couldn’t be more poignant.

Citing vulnerability to climate change, exacerbated droughts, crop failure and mudslides, the World Bank predicts Nepal is unlikely to reach lower-middle income country status before 2030. In its May 2017 report, the World Bank states that in Nepal, ‘the quality of education, health care, and infrastructure remains abysmal’.

However, the report does not take into account the growing examples of grassroots, inclusive, sustainable and integral enterprises, and the newly elected officials that will also represent them.

With quotas, scholarships, government programmes, diverse representation, but most of all bottom-up, inclusive, sustainable development, Nepal is rocketing towards monumental change.

‘This generation, and the next generation, will have the education they need to affect change,’ says Nira Bhatta, a programme officer at Winrock Nepal, an environmental NGO.

These grassroots enterprises, priding themselves on inclusion, diversity and sustainability, could allow Nepal to maintain its high prediction of a seven per cent economic growth for Nepal this year. And the country has seen rapid progress before, in 2011, whereby the amount of people living on less than US$1.25 a day halved, compared with seven years prior.

There is so much development underway, that Kathmandu is locally nicknamed ‘Konstruct-mandu’.

‘By at least 10 years’ time, the government, in every sector, has to have 33 per cent women. There are government scholarships and seats reserved for women and underprivileged groups,’ says Bhatta.

‘For a long time, other people used all of the space. But now, people are starting to raise their voices for their rights. They are standing up against corruption.’

Top image: Runa Jha solar shop by Lucy EJ Woods

Thumbnail image: Women in Nepal. ©Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank 

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