Dev Raj Dahal
Civilisation grows with equal social development when one set of human beings do not dominate the other set of humans by either coercion or due process of law. Law, therefore, is set up to prevent the Darwinist theory of the survival of the fittest. Modern constitutional state purports to create social and political solidarity across human species without being excessively predatory to nature. A society in which all potential abilities of men and women are allowed to flourish can become more cooperative, innovative, civilised, virtuous and adaptable to changing ecological, social, economic and technological conditions of modernity and reap fair development outcomes.
This is the reason Nepal’s constitution visualises to create an egalitarian society by abolishing all kinds of discrimination, historical, caste, gender, cultural and class so as to create equal level playing field. Education, science, democracy, social justice and human rights broke down the walls of biological superiority and nourished equal fitness of women for social equality, power, position and identity. Still, removal of historical psychology of self or ascribed inferiority, structural conditions and restrictions in Nepal are essential for women’s emancipation from all constraints and enable them to lead fulfilling lives, liberty and identity.
Firstly, the gender discourse in the world in general and Nepal in particular have brought major shifts conducive to women’s empowerment. The first shift has occurred in the discourse on politics in Nepal which has enlarged the concept of the state's role in the areas of concern to women and particularly to Dalits and marginalised sections of society. Today, women’s consent to the political system is based on the expectation of their improved living standards and transformation from unequal people to equal citizens.
In this context, Nepali state has become more active in family matters regarding domestic violence, child rights, paternal property rights and individual suicide thus expunging the liberal separation between the public and the private realm. It sought to imbibe feminist discourse “personal is political” and formulated socially inclusive policies based on basic needs, rights and aspirations. Political parties and vital agencies have to foster gender-sensitive socialisation in their internal life so that one finds substantive change in tune with the civic culture of the nation.
A great dose of civic education and skill oriented training are essential for women to increase their civic competence and financial autonomy which is a precondition for active citizenship. The second shift is seen in its legal and policy culture. Bounded by international law and gender obligations, Nepali state has also enlarged the domain of women’s rights in various areas — reproductive rights, right against exploitation, non-discrimination, social inclusion and affirmative action or positive discrimination in governance, education, health and income-generation and peace-promotion activities.
Nepal’s constitution and several policy documents spell out commitment to remove pre-modern patronage system of governance based on social hierarchy and patriarchy which reproduces the power of males through motherly socialisation of female and her emotional attachment to children and home only, not any lure to public sphere vital to engage in politics, law and public policy making pertaining to their life, liberty and property. The government has introduced action plans one after another to end gender-based violence through empowerment, eradicate the culture of impunity and break the culture of silence.
Growing violence against women needs be abolished through appropriate policy intervention, proper law-enforcement and exposure of the culprits to public shame as an unacceptable crime. Women’s organisations, media and civil society can play constructive roles in this direction. The third shift has occurred from equal opportunity to equal outcome of governance for both Nepali men and women, equality of citizenship and procedural distribution of fairness based on law.
Women are occupying larger political space in the local government, provinces and the parliament and laws have been promulgated for their inclusion in public institutions of the nation but in no way it is unfolding better prospect as higher up decision making domains in all the spheres are still dominated by a political culture of patriarchy and some form of patronage, not impersonality required of democratic governance. Accordingly, new concepts such as gender responsive budgeting and gender responsive governance have been introduced to improve gender-sensitive indicators and outcomes.
The fourth shift has occurred in the choice model of society in matters of negotiation of marriage, institutional affiliation, job preference in the national and global labour market, social inclusion, social security and dignity of life. The constitution has incorporated the postmodern condition of life. Migration has emerged as an alternative mechanism for better life for Nepalis women as the national labour market is overcrowded due to the annual entry of over a half a million youth into the labour market and the weakness of the government and private sector to absorb less than 10 per cent of them.
Bulk of women have received permission to work overseas mostly in the Gulf region, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia, where many of them work as domestic workers, servants and slaves, not citizens and universal human persons entitled with labour and human rights. Technical and professionals especially in nursing, banking and white collar sectors are attracted to the UK, Australia, the US and Canada. But it is not without social and economic costs to the family and home, society, economic life of rural areas and the nation as well as remittance flow to Nepal not from the high-skilled workers from advanced countries but from low-skilled workers from the Gulf region, Malaysia and India.
Empowerment of Nepali women can be achieved through four measures: the learning of indigenous and universal knowledge, in which education of women and men can lead to self-awakening, self-determination and enlightenment leading to re-socialisation and active citizenship; rational and spiritual evolution, in which purpose of development, is clearly defined in terms of equal gender outcome with the possibility to enlarge autonomy, freedom of choice and material achievement through collective action.
Another is the critical course of action, in which life of Nepali men and women is brought to decisive reflection to the condition of their actual existence, development and gender gaps and opening of society to equal opportunity to meet the modern ideals of human rights, democracy, social justice and positive peace addressing physical, social and moral needs. Under innovative approach, Nepali men and women are peacefully enabled to engage in unfolding labor market opportunities and dignified work though limited, reap benefits from the changing universal concepts of ecological justice, technological evolution, new economy, family values, new social stratification and participatory political condition of modernity offered by Nepal’s Constitution rooted in the sovereignty of people and democracy.
These are critical elements to reduce the appetite for gender violence and heal the society from entropies, abrasions and deterioration of public security. Empowerment is a holistic concept which cannot be reduced to disciplinary boundaries of knowledge, institutions or particular empirical categories or social division of labour. What is needed is to transform Nepal’s informal society, economy and polity into a formal constitutional process by ensuring women’s voice, visibility and representation and enabling them to engage in the rational determination of life, politics, law and public policies of the nation governing them.
Rights-based discourse alone is insufficient for Nepali women’s empowerment as it favours only the organised part of society, not the private and informal domains. The scope for better gender justice in Nepal can be provided by the provision of welfare state, contributory funding of social security, social protection of vulnerable women and recognition of the inequitable burden and benefits of care work on women, good governance and affirmative action.
Nepali civic, political, administrative and security institutions have increased their inclusion. Redistributive mechanism of social justice in Nepal is expected to foster egalitarian society based on social, gender and inter-generational justice. This is one of the ways to make women’s empowerment self-sustaining, reap development dividends and embrace the spirit of positive peace.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)