“I Feel Bolder”
Being a woman in Nepal is not easy. According to the United Nations Women, one in four Nepalese women in their lifetime, experience physical or sexual violence from their partner. Within a calendar year, an estimated one in ten women report similar acts of violence from their partner. These numbers do not tell the whole story because many women do not report these assaults to the police. One reason for this in Nepal is the stigmatization the victims face afterwards. An article in the Himalayan Times reveals the struggles of one girl after she reported her rape. This article tells the audience that the girl could no longer go to school as other villagers treated her as if she were the criminal. This is a common problem faced by women who report physical and sexual crimes committed against them.
Another issue for women in Nepal is child marriage. Since 1963, the minimum age of marriage under Nepali law is 20 years of age. However, UNPF estimates that, in 2017, ten percent of women in Nepal are married before the age of 15, and 37 percent before the age of 18. The Centre for Reproductive Rights states that being a child bride can be unsafe, as these marriages can lead to early or unwanted pregnancies (complications associated with pregnancy is the leading cause of death for girls 15-19 worldwide), and the girls are more likely to be victims of domestic violence. The Human Rights Watch research shows that even with these risks, families still practice the tradition of child marriage because of severe poverty (cannot feed their children, school is too expensive), or fear of premarital relationships, which are against social norms. Though most child marriages are arranged, Girls not Brides reported that there are also voluntary child marriages, called “love marriages”. Although different because the spouses choose each other, they often occur because the children or young teenagers wish to escape difficult situations.
Last month I had the opportunity to talk to a number of women in the Dang Valley. Dang Valley is a farming region 500 km north of Kathmandu. It is approximately five times the size of Toronto and originally populated by the Tharu (indigenous people to the valley). After 14 hours of riding in a car, my boss, Binayak, and I arrived at the Centre of Sakshyam Mahila Samuha (a self-help women’s group) to visit these women and learn about their business and their lives. The Centre was founded by Rachana Subedi 15 years ago to help women who have been physically and/or sexually assaulted. The Centre is comprised of twenty-eight members who have set up a business that is supported by bank loans and the profits made from selling handmade sweaters, headbands, and reusable pads. Three years ago, a rich and prominent woman in the Dang area donated a house on three acres of land to the Centre for members to use. Four of the women were interested in farming the land and live in the house, and the remaining members use the house as a meeting spot. With the exception of the donated land, the women were very excited to tell me that this Centre is their self-made business; no other donations or grants have been acquired.
Abused women join the Centre to gain independence. One woman** commented on her past abuse, telling my boss, who in turn translated for me, that she was married at the age of 16 because her parents could no longer care for her. She had limited education as she worked on her family’s farm before marrying and participated in unpaid domestic work at her in-law’s house after marriage. At the age of 21, she divorced her husband because he was abusive, and she subsequently became a member of the Centre. In Nepal, it is difficult to obtain a divorce as it is expensive and time-consuming The Human Rights Watch wrote that as a child bride you are able to divorce from your husband if no child has been produced by the time the child bride reaches the age of 18. If the union was not a child marriage this process becomes more difficult because not only are there legal stipulations, there are also the social stigmas associated with divorce. The Women’s Foundation Nepal published a story describing how one woman was shunned, and how her family pleaded with her to not divorce her husband.
The Centre of Sakshyam Mahila Samuha’s main goals are to help its members by providing a source of income and be a supportive community. However, with the donated three acres of land, it has become much more than that. The Community Self Reliance Centrereported that land ownership for women can help create security, independence, and confidence, and enables women to be active in social and political areas. As of 2007, by law, women in Nepal can access land through inheritance, land purchase, lease, and government land allocations. Although this law has been in effect for 12 years, only 20 percent of Nepalese women own land. This is slowly changing. Since 2015 the government has offered a tax exemption for land registered in a woman’s name. With the change in the law and the discount, more people are starting to co-register land or register it only in the woman’s name.
One of the last questions I asked the women I met at the Centre of Sakshyam Mahila Samuha was what gaining the three acres of land meant to them. Their answer was that it gave them purpose, security, and a sense of ownership. Similar stories have been recorded by Oxfam; one woman and her husband, after 43 years of marriage, co-registered their land, and her response to how she feels was, “I feel bolder”.
**Permission was given before talking openly about her experience, and names left out to protect her identity.