Nepal is a country of an outstanding social complexity. It is a patchwork comprising of 125 castes and ethnic groups, mainly of Indo-European and Tibeto-Burman origins. This is an incredibly rich social spectrum, where each particular group speaks its own language, cultivates its own customs and traditions and worship its own gods.
At the same time, it is a hierarchical society where all those cultures do not always coexist in harmony but compete for better access to resources and privileges, with the Hindu culture as dominating one and its main feature – caste system.
Caste status is inheritable. Belonging to a particular caste is determined from birth, which dictates one’s faith and position in the society for the rest of his/her life, according to the social group, caste, they were born into and regardless individual achievements, such as education or wealth.
This system opens the door to the privileged so called “high castes“, while discriminates the “low“ ones on the basis of their ritual impurity – ultimate criteria in Hindu culture.
The lowest position is occupied by Dalits, “untouchables”. As such they suffer all types of exclusion and are deprived of opportunities that higher castes enjoy.
The literacy rate among Dalits is 52% compared with 66%, the country‘s average literacy rate. Their life expectancy is nine years shorter than the country‘s average. Almost half of the Dalit community lives below the poverty line.
But there are plenty of other groups excluded from the society, stigmatized in a variety of ways.
The exclusion takes place on different levels and refers to the following areas: sex – discrimination of women by men; the already mentioned caste – discrimination of “untouchables“, Dalits, by so called “high castes“, Brahmins and Chhetris; ethnicity – domination of Caucasian race over Mongoloid; linguistic – domination of Nepali language over other mother tongues; religious – primacy of Hinduism over other faiths and beliefs; territorial – domination of the hill people over those from the lowlands.
The phenomenon of exclusion affects 2/3 of Nepali population.
Nepali society is also highy patriarchal, which means that the women generally suffer from exclusion, although the grade of discrimination varies and depends on the caste they belong to, their class, ethnic group, age and religion they profess.
Suicide is one of the main causes of death among women in the productive age in Nepal. It is an outcome of the psychological burden they carry, derived from such factors as their low legal, cultural, ritual and social status, reflected in the treatment they are exposed to within the society and their own families.
Domestic violence is very common in Nepali homes and the most cruel of its forms is an act of homicide, mostly over dowry, that hardly meets exorbitant expectations of a woman´s huband and his family.
The daughters, wives, daughters-in-law, sisters and mothers are exploited and disrespected by their male relatives, and their role in the family is reduced to doing the household chores.
Women in Nepal are subjected to a very strict code of conduct that clearly defines their ideal attributes and responsibilities, and they are judged solely on the basis of their performance in these areas.
Women, as second-class citizens in Nepal, still struggle for equal rights to education, professonal careers and self-determination. The workload in the household, bringing up the children and traditionally defined responsibilities make it impossible for the women to have access to vocational trainings or workshops – organized in order to empower them, to build their capacity and qualifications. As a result, they cannot compete with men in the labour market, which perpetuates this vicious circle.
The widows are one of the most marginalized and discrimiated groups in Nepali society. Behind this situation lie superstitions, religious practices and patriarchal system – all of them extremely hard to eradicate.
According to a common in Hindu culture belief, a widow brings bad luck to her family members and her whole environment. She is considered inauspicious, a bad omen, therefore she is not welcome during secular or religious ceremonies and other social events – weddings, births, festivals etc., is encouraged to avoid attending them for the sake of the other participants, which practically excludes her from family and social life what leads to her isolation.
A widow is blamed for her husband‘s death, no matter what the actual cause of his death was, stated officially in medical report.
She is expected to strictly follow a diet for the rest of her life that excludes from her meals fish, meat, lentils, onion, garlic and hot spices, among others (essential ingredients used in typical Nepali cuisine).
This sacrifice is seen as her duty as a good and respected wife, and part of her never-ending mourning period.
There is a cultural ban on remarrying for the widows. If on top of that she is rejected by the late husband’s family – what happens often – it leaves her resourceless and vulnerable, with nobody protecting her nor providing for her.
Chhaupadi is one of so many culturally rooted practices that affect women in Nepal. It consists of isolating women and girls during their menstruation in a small hut or a cowshed nearby the house, without water, electricity or sanitary facilities.
Women are compelled to stay there since they are believed to become ritually impure with every monthly cycle. They are prohibited from contacting with their family members and entering the house, especially the kitchen, as their presence would pollute the domestic space.
Son preference, another tendency deeply ingrained in Nepali culture and still nowadays dominating in the society, discriminates girl child. Female offspring suffer from unequal access to education, healthcare and even the food. Girls also work harder in the household than their brothers, normally from a very early age.
One of the forms of female oppresion is kamalari, a system of bonded labour practiced to pay back a family debt or a loan. It is an old tradition common among poor families from Tharu ethnic group from the southern lowlands, where the daugthers are sent away to serve at the lender’s house.
Few-year old girls work hard as maids, far from their families, deprived of their right to education, proper environment for their growth and untroubled childhood.
The above ones are only few brief remarks on the social scenario in Nepal.
In such a difficult cultural context, a wise and delicate approach is needed.
The goal is to empower a woman without excluding her from her environment; to give her tools to grow without outcasting her from her natural cultural cocoon – a conservative society, that still reluctantly approves such evolution, at the same time being her main reference and acting as her protector (in a particular, locally understood way and in accordance with predominating values).
That can be achieved by working with experienced and visionary people having high level of gender and cultural sensitivity, supporting initiatives and projects oriented to such goals.