Women in Nepal: fighting against the control of men

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Women in Nepal: fighting against the control of men

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Runa Jha solar shop by Lucy EJ Woods

These brilliant women are fighting against cultural traditions in Nepal. They are now community leaders, environmentalists, politicians and business owners. Lucy EJ Woods writes.

Nepal has had many decades of serious problems, 22 different coalition governments in 26 years, most of the royal family were killed in 2001, and many different leaders. Now, Nepal has started to do things differently.

The country might be calm now. 2016 was the beginning of the first democratic constitution. In June 2017, Nepal had its first local elections since 1997, when the king was in control. There will be provincial and national elections in January 2018. And there are new rules to make sure there are enough representatives from all groups, especially women.

A new law says that two of every five candidates must be women. So 20,000 Nepalese women stood for election in 283 regions. With each election, there must also be at least one female Dalit candidate (dalits are also called ‘untouchables’ - they lowest level of Indian society in the caste system).

Women in power

One female candidate is Lalita Choudhary. She first started her own solar lamp and charger shop, which normally only men do. Now she is standing for election in the small town of Lahan, in eastern Nepal.

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A map of Lahan in Nepal. Via openstreetmap.org

In Lahan, women always wear saris and lots of jewellry. Their husband’s family owns them. They have to stay at home and not talk to other men. There are not many women who have a career or run a business.

In Choudhary’s job, she sells solar lamps and delivers them to people – and she often needs to talk to men. She has talked to many local people about how solar power helps the environment and social responsibility. This was how the community started to respect her and they were not against her talking to men.

A company called Empower Generation encouraged her to start her shop. This is an NGO run by women. They look for women who want to run their own sustainable business. So far the company has given 23 Nepalese women money, products, training and support.

All this helps women in rural Nepal so they do not need to depend on men. It also helps people to learn about the environment.

Because she was already helping women, Choudhary decided to try to enter local politics. She was ‘interested in politics’ before, but did not think it was possible for her to do anything until the new rule that 2/5 of candidates must now be women. She wants to work for new roads, more money for old people and improved education.

Climbing to the top

On the other side of Nepal, in the northwest, is the richer, tourist area of Pokhara. There are many guest houses, bars and restaurants along the valley by Phewa Lake.

Many tourists come to Pokhara from around the world because it is near the Himalayan Annapurna: the tenth highest summit in the world.

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Pokhara Valley, Nepal in 2017. © Lucy EJ Woods

Altitude sickness is the most common problem that tourist have in the mountains.

But if you are a woman, the biggest problem was sexual harassment, because women have to climb the mountains with a male guide.

Lucky Chhetri owns Three Sisters Adventure Trekking: a company and NGO that trains Nepalese women as mountain guides.

‘Women were frightened,’ says Chhetri, ‘and not happy. So, we had the idea to train women as guides.’

At first, other guides and local people said it was a bad idea. They thought women were not capable of doing mountain treks, explains Chhetri.

The Three Sisters Adventure Trekking has grown, but many other guides and local people still criticize the company.

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

The training, money and support give confidence to women. ‘At the beginning, they think: “I cannot do this, I am a woman”. But we help them.

‘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. She is the executive director of NGO Shakti Sumuha, a charity to help women and girls after they have been trafficked. Survivors of human trafficking run the charity.

More than 7,000 Nepalese women and girls were trafficked to India in 2014. So there are now about 200,000 people working in Indian brothels (‘brothel’= where men pay prostitutes for sex) because of human trafficking.

Dunawar is very busy at work. But she told us her own story of when she was trafficked. It began when her brother went missing.

‘In our culture, sons are very important,’ explains Dunawar. ‘The daughters are less important.’ The family heard that her brother was in northern India, so they went to find him fast. On the way, two men at the same guest house as Dunawar and her family gave them some laddu (sweet dough). After eating the laddu, Dunawar does not remember anything. Then she woke up in a brothel in India.

On the first night that Dunawar had ever been away from her family, a Nepalese woman told her that someone had sold her and she was now a sex worker in Mumbai. When she heard this, she felt total darkness.

Dunawar refused to work in the brothel, and they beat her. For a month, they said they would cut off her head and they put out cigarettes on her skin. Then they sold her to another brothel. Here, six men attacked and gang raped her.

‘When I woke up, there was blood everywhere,’ says Dunawar. ‘I felt pain all over my body... and then, I accepted it.

‘So many times I wanted to kill myself ... but I had no chance to do that, or to escape,’ she says.

Five months later, police rescued Dunawar and 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 started Shakti Samuha. She wanted to turn tears into power.

Dunawar was harassed in the street for four years – men shouted ‘danta’ (sex worker) at her and the police watched her. Finally she got Shakti Sumuha registered as an NGO.

Shakti Samuha is now in 13 districts. They run five shelter houses and give counselling, education and jobs to Nepalese women and girls rescued from human trafficking.

Trafficking can happen to anyone – rich or poor, male or female, says Dunawar, but most are girls from poor families, with little education and from low castes. After the rescue, the girls often want education. They want to be independent, to earn money to stop the trafficking happening again.

Shakti Samuha trains the survivors eg. with textiles or handicraft skills. They give them education and training for work. Dunawar hopes ‘to develop a new generation of independent, confident girls’.

Nepalese women in science

Bhaktapur is about an hour by bus from Kathmandu. It is one of the areas that suffered most in the 2015 earthquake, so most of the famous temples there have white and red tape and ‘do not enter’ signs.

Binita Shrestha and Pratiksha Pandey started Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (WiSTEM) here. When they were teenagers, they saw that there were not many women working in these areas, so they decided to develop classes on STEM subjects.

When Shrestha was 16 years old, she was the only girl in her computer science class.

When Shrestha met Pandey (now 22) at a university engineering class, they started to research why there were very few women in their STEM classes.

They found that that girls had no role models to show them how to break through the sexist stereotypes. Boys and girls learn the same stereotypes and boys criticize girls who study STEM subjects, and try to make them feel bad.

The two girls started STEM workshops in primary schools and got other females to be role models.

WiSTEM got money from the government, so now many schools across Nepal, even in rural areas, now do STEM workshops and encourage female role models for both girls and boys.

WiSTEM wants both boys and girls to be able to solve problems in life and be able to think critically. They also want to end the idea of different jobs and skills for women and men now and in the future. The STEM classes give these skills and the skills Nepal will need to fight climate change.

The World Bank report (May 2017) says that, because of problems with climate change, droughts, crop failure and mudslides, Nepal will probably not become a ‘lower-middle income country’ before 2030. It also says that the quality of education, health care, and infrastructure is very bad.

But the report does not talk about all the new examples of sustainable businesses and the women who will represent the people. Nepal will change a lot soon.

The new small businesses could keep Nepal’s economy growing at seven per cent per year. And the country has had quick progress before, in 2011, when the number of people living on less than US$1.25 a day quickly became half what it was seven years before.

There is so much development, people call Kathmandu ‘Konstruct-mandu’.

In about 10 years, the government, in every area, has to have 33 per cent women. There are government scholarships and seats reserved for women and groups that have less power.

For a long time, other people used all the space. But now, people are starting to fight for their rights. They are fighting against corruption.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2017/08/15/nepalese-women-patriarchy

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).