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Updated: March 26, 2013 16:36 IST

Voices from the Himalayas

Divya Trivedi
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Changing mindsets: Mohana Ansari.
The Hindu
Changing mindsets: Mohana Ansari.

Mohana Ansari of Nepal’s National Women Commission reflects on the socio-political aspirations of women in the Himalayan nation

As Nepal grapples with finding a political alternative to the Baburam Bhattarai-led government and awaits an election date, women in the Himalayan nation look to protect their rights within the constitutional framework.

At the forefront of this struggle for safeguarding the rights of women in the Hindu-dominated country stands Mohana Ansari of the National Women Commission. The first female lawyer from the minority Muslim community in Nepal, Mohana has been a working journalist, a polio campaigner and was appointed to the Commission in 2010.

Apart from demanding an end to violence against women and equal citizenship rights, Mohana is also an advocate of representation and participation of women in the political processes of the country, and safeguarding the rights of Muslims, Janajatis, Dalits and other marginalised communities through government programmes.

The new constitution that was being seen as upholding women’s rights, was dissolved in May last year, slowing down the process of empowerment for women, she told The Hindu at her office in Kathmandu.

“The new constitution for the first time acknowledged the equality of women and laid down equal rights for them. But there was much more that could have been done. Draft Bills on witchcraft, prevention of sexual harassment at the work place, on disappearances during conflicts and on truth and reconciliation did not see the light of day, is indeed a lost opportunity for Nepali women. However, ever since women in Nepal have been trying to ensure representation of women at all levels,” she said. The Interim Constitution of 2007 requires 33 per cent reservation of women in all state structures.

While at one level, the 33 per cent reservation mark was being ensured, it could not find adherence in other mechanisms. For instance, in a total police force of 60,000 officers, only around 3,000 are women, whereas if the 33 per cent reservation was being followed, the number should have been much higher, explained Mohana.

Women in Nepal have been struggling for basic human rights for a long time now. Though some awareness did take place post the democratic movement of 1990, the long drawn people’s war led by the Maoists and the second people’s movement of 2006 or Janandolan II, much is still left to be desired.

Somehow, the issue of implementation of women’s rights gets drowned somewhere in the post-movement periods, pointed out Mohana.

“Political parties are invariably headed by men and women are reduced to a position from where they have to request those heading the parties to ensure rights for them. Moreover, the 33 per cent reservation requirement for women in not being met by any political party with very little women’s representation in key party positions,” she explained.

But the problem of women’s empowerment in Nepal is deep rooted and starts from the time they go to school, she said.

Many girls in hilly regions or from orthodox Brahmin families drop out of school at a very young age. The discrimination starts from the time of their first period, when they are treated as untouchables and made to stay confined in a separate verandah in urban areas or a shed away from the house in rural hilly areas. The utensils – cups and plates for food consumption are kept separate and they are not allowed to touch family members. “In some orthodox Brahmin families if the girl touches her brother during this period, then a purification ritual is held where water is sprinkled on the brother to cleanse him of the touch,” said Mohana. The same thing is repeated when a woman delivers a baby.

This kind of treatment fills her with an inferiority complex and affects her participation in school. This is the starting point of gender based violence faced by women in Nepal. Thanks to the evolving nuclear family and spread of education in the metros, there are some changes happening to the mindset but by and large the situation remains unchanged.

The NWC, with scarce resources and lack of outreach offices faces an uphill task. “But we are going to do all we can to protect our participation and recognition of our identity. Only when they want us to protest, the political parties remember us and we form the mass in street protests. But that has to change, and 33 per cent representation is only a small start for now,” concluded Mohana.

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