And perhaps it is a sign of times that women, particularly in the urban centres do not accept discriminatory laws and archaic patriarchal values anymore, they fight for their rights, advocate and speak out despite vicious online trolls, attempts at character assassination and threats of abuse and death.
At the same time, women have transformed the landscape of rural Nepal. Partly, this is because the men are missing: gone abroad for work. This is where women’s empowerment is most felt, they till the farms, build highways, lead community forestry groups, run schools.
During the 2015 earthquakes, it was the women who kept the families together and rebuilt homes. New studies show that women-headed households have fared far better during the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.
Given the chance, Nepali women have also time and again proven their mettle in leadership positions. After the local elections in 2017, Hupsekot in Nawalparasi and Jumla became two municipalities in which women were voted both chair and deputy. In most others, deputy mayors are required by law to be women if the mayor is a man.
Mayor Kantika Sejuwal of the Nepali Congress and vice-mayor Apsara Devi Neupane of the NCP have together improved education, farming, nature conservation, and now Covid-19 management in Jumla. The chest-thumping male leaders of the NCP in Kathmandu should be ashamed of themselves.
Imagine what we could have achieved if the Jumla and Hupsekot model was replicated in more of Nepal’s 736 municipalities, 17 cities, and the Central Government. Only 3 in the 22-member Cabinet are women, and women in politics are still largely confined to the kind of ceremonial roles ascribed to President Bidya Devi Bhandari.
We might boast of having one of the largest female representations in Parliament but few have a say in matters of importance. We need to encourage female politicians who dare to stick to principles inctead of over-scrutinising them for just being women.
Similarly, 80% of Nepal’s labour force is female but they continue to be restricted to the ‘informal sector’. We have to utilise their full potential and promote equality at home and in the workplace for women to gain economic independence.
International Women’s Day on 8 March must not be limited to tokenism. We have to strive for gender equality in every sphere of life as if every day is women’s day. We must pay special heed to the doubly-discriminated women from Dalit and other excluded groups, as well as gender minorities who identify themselves as women.
Nepal’s progress in public health, education, nutrition and poverty alleviation is directly proportional to increased female literacy. What needs to change now are laws, cultural norms and values that still treat women as half-citizens.