Nepal Must Go Beyond ‘Raising Awareness’ to Tackle Root Causes of Gender Inequality

Women LEAD Co-Founder and Executive Director, Claire Naylor, was interviewed by World Politics Review about gender equality and the current status of women and girls in Nepal. 

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Activists protest to ensure women’s rights in a new draft constitution. (Photo: Binod Joshi)

This article is part of an ongoing WPR series on the status of women’s rights and gender equality in various countries around the globe. The original article can be viewed here

A recent report by Human Rights Watch called out the government of Nepal for not doing enough to stop child marriage. Currently 37 percent of girls marry before age 18, and while the government has pledged to end child marriage, few concrete steps have been taken to achieve this goal. In an email interview, Claire Naylor, the co-founder and executive director of Women LEAD, discusses women’s right in Nepal.

WPR: What is the current status of women’s rights and gender equality in Nepal?

Claire Naylor: Women’s rights are improving, but not fast enough, and not in the ways that matter most.

Nepal has shown steady progress over the past five years, as evidenced by its recent rise in the Global Gender Gap Index. This incremental improvement is due, in large part, to the strides in maternal health, near-universal primary education for girls, and state-mandated quotas for women in government. However, while the progress in basic rights and services has meant that the basic needs of over 15 million women are finally being met, this progress has failed to translate into the fundamental shifts in mindset that precede transformation and true gender equality.

For example, development interventions often tackle the lowest common denominator. The tragedy is that as long as the focus remains on primary, rather than university, education for girls, and as long as women are trained to produce handicrafts, rather than being taught how to code and launch their own ventures, change will continue to be incremental rather than exponential.

WPR: How big an issue are gender equality and women’s rights in Nepal, among women and the population at large, and what efforts are underway to advance and expand women’s rights?

Naylor: Gender equality and women’s rights affect all other issues in Nepal. However, the reality is that most of Nepali society is heavily patriarchal, and this is layered on top of a zero-sum mentality that has developed over generations of subsistence living and poverty. This means that the “gender agenda” can be viewed as a threat to other development sectors, a perception that has stunted real support for gender equality on the ground.

Additionally, the focus of many efforts to improve women’s rights has been limited in scope to merely “raising awareness” about issues like human trafficking, rather than tackling their root causes. While the optics of these activities can be compelling, they have done little to change the harsh realities that rural girls face.

Indeed, the women’s rights arena in Nepal is at risk of becoming an echo chamber, with few true champions positioned to drive equality and progress in the sectors where the largest gains lie: the economy, education and government. Until women hold key positions of influence and decision-making authority across all sectors of Nepal, the status of women will continue to be an issue that is analyzed rather than actualized.

WPR: How big of an issue is child marriage in Nepal, what other social and political barriers stand in the way of gender equality, and how can the international community support domestic advocates seeking change?

Naylor: Child marriage is a major problem in Nepal, with 37 percent of girls married before the age of 18, despite the legal age for marriage being 20 for both boys and girls. However, if you look beyond that startling statistic, it is the cultural drivers of these high rates—including adherence to the dowry system—that have a much larger impact on gender equality. While the state can set a minimum age for marriage, it cannot regulate many underlying practices that are deeply rooted in religious beliefs and that impact gender equality, such as strictly enforced regulations around menstruation and a preference for sons over daughters. These more nuanced, but pervasive, barriers have prevented women from fully participating in all aspects of public life for centuries, and may take generations to fully overcome.

Unsurprisingly, Nepal’s development agenda has been predominantly driven by the donor community, rather than by women and girls themselves. Young women aged 13 to 24 comprise 13 percent of Nepal’s population, and this new generation is more educated and better connected than ever before. Although their participation is critical to building Nepal’s future, their opinions and voices are rarely valued in Nepal’s traditionally male-dominated society. Gender stereotypes and patriarchal traditions greatly limit women’s ability to decide their own future, including their studies, their marriage, their career and their own economic independence. It is high time for women and girls to set their own agenda and spearhead solutions to Nepal’s most intractable problems.

While there has been increased global attention on Nepal over the past 12 months, in part because of victories like U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent announcement about expanding the Let Girls Learn initiative to Nepal, the reality remains that only 2 cents of every development dollar are invested in girls. So, how can the international community support girl-led change? It can put its money where its mouth is by believing in them enough to invest in their ideas, and then getting out of the way.

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