The contours of “New Nepal” we all dream of cannot be shaped without appropriately addressing the concerns being raised by the indigenous women, who comprise half the female population. Traditionally, these women enjoyed greater degree of freedom and socioeconomic status than those from the so-called high caste Hindu groups such as Bahun, Chhetri, and Thakuri, who were restricted by pervasive patriarchy and religious orthodoxy. Unlike these women of the Indo-Aryan origin, the indigenous women were adept in handicrafts and other enterprises and freely participated in socio-cultural events. They faced no restriction during menstruation and were even free to choose their life partner and to remarry if they became single. They were also less affected by the dowry system.Over the recent times, however, the tide has turned in favor of the Indo-Aryan women; thanks to their connection to the ruling elites who hail from their communities. The Indo-Aryan women now have advantage over the indigenous women with regard to language, education, polity to name a few. On the other hand, technological advancement has resulted in mass production of goods, which have gradually replaced handicrafts made by indigenous women. Thus the double whammy.
“A huge number of indigenous women are deprived from even basic human rights such as access to health services, education and employment,” says Shanti Kumari Rai, president of Lawyers’ Association for the Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP). “They have been subjected to relentless discriminations based on gender, indigeneity, language, religion, culture and so forth, for centuries.”
A case study carried out among the indigenous women workers in Nepal by the International Labor Organization in 2012 echoes the concern.
Though the 2011 Census showed a marked improvement in the literary rate — 75 % for men and 57.4 % for women, the case study found that indigenous women faired far below the national average. For instance, only 39 % of men and 16 % of women of the indigenous Majhi community from the Inner Terai region were found literate.
The study further notes that the migration of indigenous women is on the rise as their living conditions worsen. Many migrate to urban centers in search of work, which is often seasonal. Over the recent years, young women have migrated abroad, especially to the Gulf nations, to work in the informal service sector, especially as housemaids and caretakers. Many of them have become victims of human trafficking and sexual abuse.
A shadow report submitted by National Indigenous Women’s Federation (NIWF) to the 49th Session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in New York in 2011 shows that almost 80% of the victims of human trafficking in 2006-07 were women and girls from the indigenous nationalities.
The genesis of indigenous women’s movement
Voices were raised for women’s role in development during the 1970s. By the 1980s, feminists were fiercely raising the issues related to gender-based discrimination; and the plans, programs and strategies were followed accordingly.
But, the genesis of indigenous women’s movement can be traced only toward the late 1990s. Indigenous women, backed by Madhesi, Dalit and Muslim women, were compelled to unite to press for their distinct agendas after the mainstream movement neglected their concern that they are discriminated far more than the women from dominant caste/ethnic groups.
Consequently, in 1999, women from different organizations affiliated with Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) formed NIWF, the umbrella organization of indigenous women. Currently, 31 indigenous women’s organizations are affiliated with NIWF, and it has already branched out to 50 districts and 1,500 VDCs.
For more than a decade, the indigenous women have been demanding an end to gender discrimination in the Constitution, laws, policies and programs. They have also called for their proportionate representation through a reservation in education, public services, and an equal say in all decision-making process, an end to trafficking in women and violence against women, implementation of the CEDAW, equal property rights, access and control over resources, inter alias.
“The government should recognize the diverse identity of women, which means that the laws, policies, and programs of government should clearly address the women from the indigenous, Dalit, Muslim, Madhesi and other minority groups,” says Soni Lama, General Secretary of NIWF. “It should then ensure their equal and inclusive participation in decision-making process in all tiers of the state mechanism in proportion to their population and reserve seats for them within 33% reservation granted to women.”
Yasso Kanti Bhattachan, one of the founders of NIWF, says that the indigenous women in Nepal are facing discriminations at three levels: First, they are facing gender discrimination; secondly, they are facing discriminations based on language, geography and culture as indigenous communities; then they are also facing discrimination within their communities for being women.
From the grassroots level to the UN
For the first time, in July 2011, the indigenous women in Nepal under the umbrella of NIWF, attended the 49th Session of the CEDAW Committee in New York, and submitted a shadow report titled, “The Rights of Indigenous Women in Nepal” to defend and explain their situation.
The report highlighted some of the serious concerns indigenous women were facing, including that of restrictive rules against self-representation of indigenous peoples in the historic Constituent Assembly (CA), their poor representation in state mechanism, the long-term problems such as bonded labor among the Tharu community, and a disproportionately high number of indigenous women and girls falling prey to human trafficking.
Following the session, the CEDAW committee, in its concluding observation issued on August in the same year, had stated that the committee welcomes the 33 percent representation of women in the CA. However, it expressed deep concern about the extremely low representation of women, in particular Dalit and indigenous women, at the local as well as high-level decision-making positions in public service. The committee had also recommended that the quota system for women’s representation in the CA be increased in the future parliament.
The committee had also urged the government to come up with concrete goals and timetable in order to accelerate increased representation of women, including Dalit and indigenous ones, in the elected and appointed bodies in all areas of public life from the local level to national levels. The committee also urged the state party to strengthen its efforts to achieve universal provision of quality education for girls at each level and to provide access to education to girls with disabilities through improved support system with special attention to girls from Dalit, indigenous and other disadvantaged groups.
“It was indeed a groundbreaking moment as we, the indigenous women of Nepal, for the first time, had an opportunity to present our issues and concerns to the UN,” says Bhattachan, who had attended the session. “But the sad thing is that, two years on, the government has done nothing to start implementing any of the committee’s recommendations relating to the women of indigenous and other minority groups.”
Bitter experiences in the CA
Altogether 197 women, including 72 women from the indigenous communities, were represented in the last Constituent Assembly, comprising 601 members—a representation of over 32 %.
As the CA was dissolved in May 2012 without fulfilling its given mandate, many CA members from the indigenous communities have issued public statement, stating that they were sent there as “a show piece.”
“Although we were nominated as representatives from our respective indigenous communities, we were not allowed to raise our issues and concerns,” says, Rukmini Chaudhary (Tharu), who was nominated under the proportional representation from Tharu community by Sanghiya Loktantrik Rastriya Manch (Tharuhat), Dang.
“We were mocked in the Assembly. I was myself subjected to mockery and fierce criticism not only by the male CA members but also women from dominant groups when I tried to raise the concerns of indigenous women in particular and indigenous nationalities at large.”
As another election is round the corner, she says, only a limited women from the dominant groups will have chance to get elected if the political parties failed to appoint women from different caste/ethnic groups in proportion to their population.
Another indigenous woman appointed to the CA, Ang Dawa Sherpa recounts, “I was proud of myself as I was nominated by the UCPN (Maoist), which had been championing the cause of the marginalized groups. But due to narrow understanding and biases of certain leaders within the party, the issues of indigenous women were shadowed.”
She further says that they were unable to push their agendas also because they were tied to the manifesto, agenda and issues of the respective parties that had nominated them to the assembly.
No wonder, despite a huge representation of the indigenous women in the CA, none of the committees under the assembly — except the report prepared by the Committee on State Restructuring and Distribution of State Power— included even a single word about indigenous women.
The road ahead
The indigenous women in Nepal have always been a part of the larger struggle of the indigenous communities and women. Over the past decade, they have been raising their issues and sensitizing society to the discrimination and inequalities that they have been subjected to.
“If the distinct and diverse identity of indigenous women is not recognized, not only these women but the nation, too, will lose a lot. For, the indigenous women, who represent half the population of women, are custodians of diverse cultures, languages, rituals and religions,” says Bhattachan. “They have knowledge of indigenous medicinal plants. They are better than men in several skills and knowledge. Therefore, protection of the knowledge, skills and distinct identity of indigenous women means protection and preservation of the national jewels.”
As Bhattachan concludes, the indigenous women aren’t demanding too much. All they’re asking for is the recognition of their identity, their rights to participate equally in all the tiers of state mechanism and decision-making process in proportion to their population, and reservation within reservation granted to women.
Written By Dev Kumar Sunuwar
Sunuwar is a freelance feature writer.