Last week took me to the wonderful Glasgow Women’s Library, situated on Landressy Street, where many of Engender’s archives are held (do go along, if you haven’t already!). I found some interesting letters there, dated 2000-2001, accompanied by colourful photographs. The letters had been sent from a young woman called Louise to the Adult Learning Project (ALP) in Edinburgh. As a trainee on a VSO programme, Louise embarked on a ten-month placement with the Human Welfare & Environment Protection Centre (HWEPC) in Dang, Nepal. Since Engender will be involved in some work regarding the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) this year, I thought it would be interesting to share with you the content of these letters, explaining what life was like for women in Nepal, almost twenty years ago.
The women Louise met in Dang organised themselves along caste lines, but she observed a sense of sisterhood, or “didi bahini,” amongst the women; the shared knowledge that they were on the same side, experiencing similar struggles. Also, Laxmipur, a town and village development committee in Dang, had a women’s group which focused on trying to overcome caste prejudices. However, despite these positive signs, life for the women and girls of the community she visited seemed very hard indeed, and all of the NGO projects were run by high-caste men who seemed much more interested in monetary gain than in challenging social problems.
Louise noted that families in Nepal only celebrate the birth of a son, not a daughter, since the daughter will normally leave home around the age of 14, often to marry a much older man. Marriages are arranged and tend to be sombre affairs, with the girl’s family paying a dowry to the family of her husband. If a girl is not married by the age of 16, her movement is greatly restricted because, it was explained to Louise, “there is the danger she will be raped.” Boys, on the other hand, can move around as they please. Although boys and men are the culprits, it is the freedom of the potential victims which is reduced. One girl told Louise that, if she was not married by the time she reached the age of 18-20 years of age, she would be “treated with suspicion.”
However, once married, her life becomes even more demanding. Typically, she will go to live with the family of her husband, often miles away from her own family. Her new mother-in-law will place more of a burden on her than on her own daughters and she will be expected to take over most of the household chores. Rising at 4.30 to collect firewood and water, she is then expected to light the fire, do all the cooking and child rearing, as well as working in the fields and often tending to livestock. Conversely, Louise noticed that the men of the household have some leisure time to visit the tea shops and chat with friends. As if this wasn’t hard enough, it was quite clear to Louise that being respectable is a full-time job for girls and “all eyes are on them”: what they wear; who they talk to; what time they return home at night (if they are allowed out in the first place); whether their hair is brushed. Louise noticed that villagers even chatted openly about her business – whom she spoke to and where she had been.
In 2000, Nepal was the only country in the world where the life expectancy of women was less than that of men – 57.1 years for women, compared to 57.6 for men – and this was due to the huge work burdens which women had to carry, as well as the amount of smoke inhaled from cooking over an open fire indoors, leading to respiratory disease. Although by 2015, women’s life expectancy had risen to 70.8, overtaking that of men by 3 years for the first time, lung disease remained the main cause of death; the 3rd highest in the world. Suicide rates are also high (data published by WHO).
It seems that the situation may be improving slowly with time for the women and girls of Nepal, as educational opportunities open up for some of them and more women occupy professional positions. However, although the caste system is no longer recognised by the law, caste relations continue to shape current social stratification, determining which opportunities are possible. The lives of these women may seem much worse than our lives here in Scotland, although there are some stark similarities. As women, we feel their pain and can relate their suffering to that of many of our sisters closer to home, and to the struggles of Scottish women throughout history. As things are slowly improving for the women of Scotland, I sincerely hope that things continue to improve for the women of Nepal; that they are treated with the respect they deserve and given more freedom to live quality lives.
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