'Remarkable progress in Nepali women's empowerment'

UN Women Nepal has been working for improving gender equality and empowerment of women. On the occasion of International Women's Day, March 8, Nandalal Tiwari of The Rising Nepal talked with Wenny Kusuma, country representative, UN Women Nepal, about the issues pertinent to women's rights in Nepal. Excerpts:

How do you see the status of women in Nepal?

Nepal has made a lot of progress on women's rights particularly in political empowerment. Women now occupy 41 per cent of all local, elected government positions. At least 14,000 women were elected from the three phases of local elections—the highest number ever elected to public office. This is something unique with regard to political empowerment. Women now occupy posts as ward members, ward chairs, chairs and deputy chairs of rural municipalities (gaunpalikas), and mayors and deputy mayors of municipalities. Now, we have to support them through training programmes and capacity building because the elected women representatives are more likely to be blamed for the poor performance at the local levels.

With regard to economic empowerment, women are very much engaged in the economy in Nepal but like in most countries, the recognition of their contribution is not at the same level as recognition of men. Unequal pay is another problem. Women's domestic works should also be quantified.

With regard to the social status of women, we have to work on making stronger laws, a safer society and community and also migration by giving up the protectionist approach.

What are the specific areas on which UN Women Nepal is focused in improving women’s condition in Nepal?

UN Women Nepal’s work focuses on two programmatic areas, governance and leadership, and women’s economic empowerment. Moreover, UN Women explicitly pursues the objective of transforming discriminatory social norms and harmful practices.

The programmatic focus on governance and leadership includes activities on women’s leadership and participation in governance systems in Nepal, in close collaboration with entities in the federal and local government, national women’s machineries, select high/district courts, the Central Bureau of Statistics, constitutional commissions, and vulnerable and excluded groups.

In particular, UN Women is taking forward the development, monitoring and implementation of gender-responsive laws, plans, budgets and statistics, both at the federal and local level. This includes the enhancement of governance mechanisms and the justice system, strengthening the technical capacity of key duty bearers, both men and women, and development of dialogue mechanisms to promote the agency and voice of vulnerable and excluded groups.

UN Women also seeks to advance women’s economic empowerment by promoting increased income security, better jobs and economic independence of vulnerable women. In particular, UN Women aims to foster an enabling environment to address discriminatory social and economic norms and structural barriers, to ensure gender-responsiveness in the development and implementation of macroeconomic and sectoral policies, and to test and adopt a substantive equality approach to women’s economic empowerment for upscaling in select target sectors (including agriculture and energy) for income generation and resilient livelihoods. UN Women will also work to promote safe migration and strategic use of economic and social remittances for women’s economic empowerment and leadership.

What are the challenges?

Persistent challenges still exist in addressing women’s economic empowerment from a substantive equality lens. Nepal ranks high in terms of women’s labour force participation, but not in other aspects of economic equality. Considerably more men than women occupy managerial positions and are considered ‘professionals’ within their sector. Moreover, only 17 per cent of private firms include women in top management positions. Wage inequality between sexes for equal work remains high, and women’s contribution to unpaid domestic/care work is yet to be recognised and valued in the national economy. In the Voluntary National Review of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the government highlights the importance of macroeconomic policy reforms to foster growth and distribute resources more equitably.

This provides an opportunity to embed a feminist approach to create an enabling environment for women’s economic empowerment and financing for gender equality.

Harmful practices, such as the practice of child marriage, have been gradually decreasing. Yet, despite the increased focus and momentum on addressing violence against women and girls (VAWG) since BPFA was adopted, the problem remains pervasive. A combination of deeply embedded patriarchal norms, customary practices and common beliefs continue to affect women’s health, livelihoods, life, dignity and personal integrity. Women are most at risk of physical and sexual violence within their homes, and at least 12 per cent of women between 15-49 years experience violence at least once.

In spite of recent national legislative gains, the 2011 Concluding Observations of the CEDAW, highlighted that patriarchal attitudes and deep-rooted stereotypes that discriminate against women remain entrenched in the social, cultural, religious, economic and political institutions and structures of the Nepalese society, including the media. The CEDAW Committee was also concerned about the persistence of harmful traditional practices in the country, such as child marriage, the dowry system, son preference, polygamy, widows/single women accused of witchcraft, and such practices as chhaupadi, jhuma, deuki and dhan-khaane.

How is the status of women’s rights in Nepal vis-à-vis women’s rights in other countries?

On development indicators, Nepal ranks 144th out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI), marking its rise from low to medium human development. The country is experiencing a window of opportunity related to its youth, with 54.9 per cent of its population below the age of 25 in 2011. Poverty rates have declined from 42 per cent to 23.8 per cent between 2003/04 and 2014/15, and Nepal made significant progress towards other Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including on universal primary education, women’s political representation, reducing child and maternal mortality and combating HIV/AIDS. The country’s development, however, is hindered by slow economic growth with an economy that relies heavily on agricultural income and remittances. Nepal’s vulnerability to disasters has also undermined achievements made in poverty reduction and human development.

Nepal’s human development outcomes continue to be slowed by gender, social and geographical exclusion and inequality. Gender inequality remains high as indicated by the Gender Inequality Index (GII) of 0.497 in 2015. The inequalities vary between Nepal’s urban and rural areas, between different regions and population groups. However, over the past years, gaps have been narrowing.

What message would you like to extend on the occasion of International Women’s Day?

The 2018 theme for International Women’s Day, is “Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives”. This year’s commemoration of International Women’s Day comes against a backdrop of unprecedented- global mobilisation for women’s rights, equality and justice. Sexual harassment, violence and discrimination against women have captured headlines and public discourse, propelled by a rising determination for change. International Women’s Day, comes as an opportunity to stand in solidarity with all those fearless women and girls who have been central to this global push to end gender discrimination, and to call for urgent action to achieve lasting change.

Today, despite some progress, we still find women’s rights and empowerment is far from reality in most countries. If we are to make the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals a reality, leave no one behind, what we need is urgent action on gender equality and the empowerment of women in both urban and rural areas. If we are to move towards solutions, we have to build solidarity across all movements as well as look at the solutions that have always been there, but are not implemented (often not funded)—that of prevention, protection and provision of services. But far from the headlines are rural women, who are often invisible, but dealing with similar or even harsher forms of discrimination. And women in rural areas make up over a quarter of the world population, and on almost every measure of development, fare worse than men in those areas, or that women in urban settings.

But there is also mobilisation in rural areas, activism that is bringing change in rural areas and transforming lives. We want to salute them on IWD! And there is a direct correlation to the CSW62 theme—which is also empowerment of rural women. On International Women’s Day, we want to shine a spotlight on the rights and activism of both rural and urban women, and to empower women in all settings to claim their rights and realise their full potential.

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