Outside the relative sophistication of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, hindu women are a long, long way from liberation. In remote rural areas, they’re considered their husband’s or father’s chattel, given or taken in marriage for the price of, say, a buffalo – a status reinforced by law. Orthodox “baahun” ( baahun are the brahmin of Nepal, the highest class in hinduism), while in minority, reveal the extent of female subjugation. They believe a woman is ritually unclean during menstruation and for ten days after giving birth, and that she must remain apart during that period and drink cow’s urine to cleanse herself. One study found that 73 % of Nepali women suffer from domestic violence. Polygamy, though officially outlawed, is widely practised in the hills, and if a woman doesn’t produce a son she’s liable to be replaced. Abortion is illegal in nearly all circumstances – even in cases of rape or incest- and is only allowed when the mother’s life is in danger. The maximum sentence for abortion is three years, and women whose babies are stillborn risk being charged with infanticide, which carries a sentence of 20 years. Predictably, this results in unsafe backstreet abortions, which are believed to be the cause of up to half of all maternal mortality in Nepal.
Women belonging to the Sherpa community and other buddhist groups are treated much more equally, and high-caste hindu women may easily flout conventions, but even these women don’t enjoy true power-sharing. ( Indeed, when it comes to gender roles, wealthy urbanites can be as traditional as any villager : the popularity of fetal ultrasound testing services in Kathmandu and the Taraï suggests that some couples are seeking to eliminate unwanted females.)
Development problems like inequities between the sexes in health care and education and the failure of population-control efforts arise directly from the low status of women in Nepal. Moreover, it is estimated that between 150 000 and 225 000 girls and women have been sold to Indian brothels. 20 % of them are under the age of 16. To poor hindu families in Nepal, daughters are often regarded as burdens, costing money to be married off and then becoming another family’s asset. So, when a broker comes offering, say, Rs 15 000 ( 1350 euros, US$ 1650) for a pubescent daughter, many readily agree. This trade is most pronounced in the central hills, where it has historical roots, since Tamang girls ( Tamang is one of the main communities in Nepal) were for generations forced to serve as concubines in the courts of the Kathmandu rulers. A prostitute may eventually buy her freedom, but usually she won’t be released until she’s been “damaged” – which these days means she has AIDS. Prostitution is also on the rise in Kathmandu and other Nepali cities.
The government being almost unconcerned, NGOs are left to set up homes for former prostitutes, who would otherwise be shunned by family and friends if they returned to their villages. Or they are working to address the underlying causes of the traffic – not only poverty in general, but specifically women’s low education and earning power. If women are educated and enabled to earn money, they won’t be seen as a drag on family finances and are less likely to be sold off.
The women’s movement is embryonic in Nepal. Women weren’t granted the vote until 1948 and women working for social change were forced to operate underground until 1990. Two successful efforts, the Bangladesh based Grameen Bank and the Nepalese government’s Production Credit for Rural Women programme, have targeted women’s development by making microenterprise loans to small, self-organizing groups of women and supporting the borrowers with literacy, family-planning and other training.