By Sudeshna Sarkar, Womens Feature Service
Until last year, March 8 was a public holiday in Nepal for women only, clubbed with two other “women’s only” religious festivals – Rishi Panchami and Teej. This year, the communist-led coalition government declared International Women’s Day a national holiday for both men and women.
However, even though over 51 per cent of Nepal’s 27 million-strong population are women, for tens of thousands of women the day has never been invested with any special meaning. Nor did the holiday this time bring them any reprieve from the back-breaking work most of them do throughout the year.
“Women’s Day? What’s that?” asks Anita Majhi, 26, a domestic help who comes from Gorkha, the region in western Nepal famous for its military recruits. On March 8, Majhi got up at 5 am as usual; cooked a brunch for her husband, a peon at Singh Darbar, the complex where most ministries are located; and put her three-year-old daughter in the care of a neighbour. Then she left to cook and clean in three different households. She was done with her work only at 6.30 pm. Negotiating Kathmandu nightmarish traffic and poor public transport, she finally returned home around 8 pm, just in time to prepare a quick dinner for the family.
Majhi, like thousands of women who work as domestic workers in Nepal – one of the poorest countries in the world – gets no weekly off or annual holiday. Since her fisherman father could not send her to school beyond the second grade so she cannot even hope for a better job. Some women have actually returned to school as mature students, but Majhi dismisses the idea. “Where is the time?” she says with fatal resignation.
While Nepal’s private sector hires more women than the government, and gets them to work in malls, casinos, restaurants and shops for low wages, it did not care to declare Women’s Day as a public holiday for its employees this time. But many government servants did no better.
Gita Lama (name changed on request) has been working as a havildar (constable) with the Nepal Police for almost 10 years now. Although this woman from Jhapa, Nepal’s tea garden district in the east, is only 25, she claimed that she was older in order to get this job, because she needed it so badly. On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, Lama was on duty at Bhrikuti Mandap, the exhibition ground where the acting minister for women, children and social welfare, Mrigendra Yadav, was the chief guest at a meeting of NGOs; and where the Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal was inaugurating a trade fair by women entrepreneurs.
Lama and other policewomen were not allowed their Women’s Day holiday. They were there at the exhibition ground, on full alert, as the celebratory programmes continued. Several of them had their children with them.
“The children’s schools are closed,” explained Renuka Subba, 25, a sepoy. “My five-year-old son wanted to be taken out like the other children, so I have brought him along, hoping there wouldn’t be any untoward incident.”
The 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day was also an occasion for Nepal’s rival parties to flex their muscles. While the ruling parties held celebrations of their own, the Maoists – a former guerrilla party whose 10-year-old armed insurrection had struck a blow for the equal rights of women – staged their own separate show.
Under a blazing sun, Maina Nepali, 61, waited impassively for the Maoist leaders to arrive and the programme to start. A brick kiln worker, she has come from Pokhara city, west of Kathmandu, to help swell the crowds at Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda’s programme. “I don’t know what Women’s Day means,” she says. “I am not a member of the Maoist party either. But I was told to come.”
Alina Pandey, 23, does know about the significance of Women’s Day means but she is not convinced that celebrating it in Nepal has brought about any change in the situation of women. Pandey, who runs a nursery in Kathmandu with her husband, had brought her four-year-old daughter, Prasiddhi, to the meeting of women trade entrepreneurs. While she sat on the ground, patiently waiting for the prime minister to arrive, her daughter was fast asleep on her lap.
“I have attended Women’s Day programmes in the past, too,” Alina says. “But none of our rights have been enforced so far. There is still no end to the repression of women or the violence against them.”
Nepal has officially announced it would see an end to all violence against women by 2010. The Prime Minister’s Office has even initiated a hotline for victims to lodge complaints. But despite such gestures, rights organisations claim that there has been a significant rise in incidents of violence against women. In the first two months of 2010, there have been 54 reported incidents, according to Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), Nepal’s largest human rights organisation. They included 10 murders, 21 incidents of rape and six attacks on brides for failing to bring dowry.
Of the 10 murders, four women were killed for bringing in insufficient dowry, three died after being assaulted, two were killed after being raped and one was set ablaze. There are also growing incidents of domestic violence with the attackers often being close relatives of the victims or neighbours. There is also a reported increase in incidents of torture in police custody.
Security personnel have been found to be increasingly involved in attacks against women and their superior officers tend to shield them. Last year, a policewoman was gang-raped by her own colleagues inside a police barrack but some of the perpetrators were allowed to go free.
Amid allegations of a growing nexus between policemen and criminals, Nepal had a star visitor on the occasion of Women’s Day. It was Kiran Bedi, the first woman officer in the Indian Police Service, who had received the Magsaysay Award for her reform of India’s prisons.
The 61-year-old had been invited by the Federation of Women Entrepreneurs Associations of Nepal to help their fund-raising drive and motivate women traders. Bedi was very enthused to hear that March 8 had been declared a public holiday in Nepal. “The roles must be reversed then,” she said. “Men should look after their homes, cook, clean and do all the things women do, so that women can go out, network and do all the things men do. Women are unselfish. They live for their families and society.”
She ended with an observation that not just Nepal, but all the countries of the region, need to hear, “The development of women means the development of the nation.”