Print Edition - 2017-02-18  |  Women Power Up

We may have come a long way, but there is much to achieve

  • The feminist consciousness flourished after the restoration of democracy in 1990 and received ample focus during the decade-long Maoist struggle followed by people’s movement and constitution-writing process
- Mohna Ansari
Nepali feminist movement has to expand its reach from city to urban and rural women, from elite circles to the grassroots and from benefitting the so-called upper caste to include women of underrepresented and marginalised communities

Feb 18, 2017-Nepal saw the emergence of the organised women movement only after end of the autocratic Rana regime in 1951. 

Nepali women have come a long way when it comes to achieving equal rights, dignity and identity, access to opportunity and protection against gender-based discrimination and abuse. In the last six decades, Nepal’s political and constitutional evolutions have contributed in enhancing women’s legal rights and protection. The feminist consciousness flourished after the restoration of democracy in 1990 and received ample focus during the decade-long Maoist struggle followed by people’s movement and constitution-writing process. 

On the other hand, government and non-governmental interventions have contributed in uplift of women’s social and economic status. 

The new constitution has guaranteed women’s political representation, property rights and equality before the law. Agreed principle of proportional inclusion is expected to increase women’s participation in politics and government at all levels.However, women’s inclusion in politics and government is yet to be “inclusive” in real sense. 

Nepali feminist movement has to expand its reach from city to urban and rural women, from elite circles to the grassroots and from benefitting the so-called upper caste to include women of underrepresented and marginalised communities.

My personal journey--from being born as a girl child in minority Madhesi Muslim community to the appointment as the member of the National Human Rights Commission--traces some of this history. 

I grew up in an ailani (public) land in Nepalgunj. I was in grade six when the land reform programme was introduced, allowing my father to pay taxes and claim ownership of the land. 

My father proceeded to do so, but there was a counter-claim on our land. Another party claimed they had leased the land to my father. My father went to the court, but lost the case. In the end, our land was transferred to someone else’s name. I remember the day the other party came to claim our house. I had just returned from school, and our house was surrounded by his musclemen. All our belongings were strewn across the yard. My mother saw us, and took us to a neighbour’s house, only to make sure we would not see the humiliation my parents were being subjected to. 

Suddenly we did not have a roof over our heads. There was a vegetable market nearby. We moved there and lived in a makeshift structured which we would call “home”—hanging curtains served as walls. We lived there for six months until my father could come up with some other arrangements. 

It was during that time I began thinking about what state responsibility towards its citizens means; what does it mean to provide for their livelihood and basic needs? 

I wanted to become a nurse or enter the medical field, but my father’s experience with the courts and the state apathy made me choose law. 

My father was not an educated man, but he understood the importance of education. He wanted to do well and provide for his family. Without basic literacy, he wasn’t able to understand open tenders. He could not decipher receipts or bills. In his generation, he was the only sibling who took night classes and studied so that could gain basic literacy. 

He had been supporting all along, but there were challenges. As a woman, I saw my mother, aunts and cousins rendered invisible, confined to the kitchen. I was sent to school. But I attended a government school while my brother went to a private school. I had to get him ready for school every day, and then only would I be able to go to school. I had to drop out of school three times because of financial constraints. 

It was a small rebellion against my family when I refused to get married when friends of my age were being married off at their teens. 

I would go to the market alone. People would call me names. My parents and I were criticised for not following local conservative norms for Muslim girls. The local community did not appreciate a Muslim girl going out and taking part in public activities. I don’t know where that strength came from, but I think we are incredibly brave when you are young. I think I just wanted to end the differentiated behavior against women.  

Our collective struggle to ensure women’s rights as human rights has paid off in many ways. In 2010, when I was appointed to the National Women’s Commission, I wanted to achieve three major goals: to make the commission’s voice strong enough to be heard, to make its work results-based and to get the commission operate outside Kathmandu. 

We were successful in ensuring law reforms on violence against women to include witchcraft, dowry incidents and domestic violence. We also pushed for implementation of Supreme Court verdicts on women’s issues such as reproductive rights.

However, there are several facts that reveal that achievements in Nepal’s women rights movement have yet to sufficiently address the social and cultural diversity among women. “Women’s inclusion” doesn’t necessarily reflect inclusion of women from the underrepresented social groups, ethnic communities and minorities as well as the poor and rural segment of the society. 

In 2014, the new government appointed me to the five-member constitutional body of the National Human Rights Commission. I was the only Madhesi Muslim female appointed to this role in its history. 

As I started my new position, the new constitution was being drafted and efforts by women’s rights groups to incorporate gender equality measures had failed. 

The new constitution was also opposed by Madhesi, Muslim and indigenous ethnic groups. 

Over fifty people including security personnel were killed during the protests in the run-up to and after the promulgation of the constitution. 

Curfews were imposed, army was deployed. Months-long blockade at the India-Nepal transit points crippled the country with acute shortage of essential supplies. During the UPR meeting in Geneva in March, I mentioned that Nepal’s constitution failed to ensure equal citizenship rights for women. Upon my return from the UPR meeting, I was critically scrutinised from the highest level of government for raising the citizenship issue at an international forum. 

I continue to raise the constitutional discrimination against women at the national and international forums. 

The biggest challenge for the NHRC is for the state to respect its neutrality and allow us to fully use its constitutional mandate. Human rights are not a privilege. They are basic rights. And, our work continues to ensure that all the citizens in this country are able to exercise their rights. 

 

Ansari is member of National Human Right commission

Published: 18-02-2017 09:35

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