Why we still need International Women’s Day
In the Nordics, some people ask why we are still celebrating the International Women’s Day (8thMarch) when gender equality has seen major improvements in recent years. We wanted to share few insights from the world of women in Nepal.
Manju Bhatta is the Behaviour Change Communications Officer in RVWRMP. She comes from the local area, and is a great role model of someone who has managed to break free of many of the constraints and taboos women face. She has a Master’s degree, and travels in the field, facilitating workshops with local people.
Pamela White is a permanent staffer of FCG, and the Home Office Coordinator and short term Gender Advisor in the project. She works worldwide, particularly on gender, human rights and evaluation issues. As a foreign woman, she has often been treated as an honorary man, as she doesn’t fit the stereotypes or expected gender roles of women in Nepal (or virtually any developing country)!
First the good news
Ten years ago in remote rural Nepal it was impossible to mention subjects of female hygiene and menstruation. Women generally gave birth alone in huts or among livestock, and stayed there with their babies for around 10 days – they were ‘untouchable’. We have heard stories from women whose baby was trodden on by a cow, or froze to death. Now women are encouraged to give birth in health posts, thus leading to much lower risks for mother and child. Community members can openly discuss menstruation (in fact, probably more easily than in Finland now!) and talk about making reusable menstrual pads. Social norms related to gender equality and menstrual hygiene are slowly changing. Many more girls are attending school. The elections of 2017 included quotas for women, giving them a chance to gain experience in leadership and government procedures. The Government of Nepal has taken many steps to address gender inequalities in the new Constitution (2015) and signing many international gender-related statements and laws.
Water projects, such as the Finnish-funded (and FCG implemented) Rural Village Water Resources Management Project (RVWRMP), provide clean water close to home, saving women and girls hours of hard labour carrying water from streams. By building Improved Cooking Stoves, the smoke in the kitchen dramatically reduces and firewood use decreases, meaning women and girls have a better environment and spend less time gathering firewood. Women dominate the training events run by the project in issues such as home garden management.
However, there is still a long way to go
Taboos still abound, particularly regarding menstruation and childbirth. Despite working on this issue for more than a decade, this taboo seems the hardest to change. The harmful chhaupadi practice prescribes that menstruating women still have to sleep in chhau huts in parts of Sudurpashchim and Karnali provinces in western Nepal. There they run the risk of snake bite, wild animal attack, freezing temperatures, carbon monoxide poisoning and rape, quite apart from discomfort and loneliness. The Government of Nepal has passed a law to penalise anyone who forces a women into a chhau hut. However, usually women go there themselves without coercion due to the fear of breaking the taboo, and it is difficult for relatively powerless young women to report their own family members to police. So while the number of deaths and injuries in chhau huts has decreased, they haven’t ended.
Women usually will not eat cow’s milk or yoghurt during their menstrual periods or after childbirth, for fear of making the cow or their child sick, and the gods angry. They cannot enter their kitchen, or touch water taps. They definitely cannot touch other adults, or attend the temple or wedding festivities. They often are not allowed to use the household (or school) toilet, for fear that they will ‘dirty it’, but rather are forced to the fields or jungle. This is important for the sanitation of the whole village, leading to increased risk of contamination of food and water for everyone. Gender-based violence rates are still high (particularly linked to excessive alcohol use by men). Families often restrict the movement of women, making it difficult for girls and women to have equal opportunities to their brothers. Naturally, the life of men isn’t easy either, as they often have to leave the country for difficult, seasonal work. However, they still have more power, privileges and leisure time than women.
RVWRMP is trying to get villagers to question their own behaviours. In ‘mother-in-law and daughter-in-law workshops’, women share moving stories of the way they were treated and what they would hope for in the future. In ‘Women as decision-makers’ workshops, the women who are newly elected to local government get a chance to consider what their problems are, identify possible solutions and plan activities and budgets. We try to instil a sense of solidarity, encouraging them to work together to abolish taboos and give women more opportunities to shine. We work with religious leaders and elderly persons to help them to understand the importance of removing taboos, and letting women use their own toilet safely. Days of celebration at village level in Nepal, such as International Women’s Day, give women the chance to celebrate how far they have come, but also look to a better future. They also focus the attention of everyone on the importance of achieving gender equality.