KATHMANDU, Sep 3 (IPS) – Days before government minister Durga Shrestha updated a global meeting on Nepal’s efforts to improve life for its women, about two dozen village women celebrating graduation from a training centre danced, sang, staged a puppet play and, finally, accepted their certificates proudly from a local official.
For six months, the women had lived in the hostel of the Navajyoti Women’s Training Centre in a quiet residential area of the capital Kathmandu, where they laboured daily to learn a vast range of skills and crafts — from reading and writing to homeopathic healing and composting — that would help bring a new light (‘nava jyoti’) to their lives and those of the people back home.
Most of the women are victims of violence — related to the Maoist uprising that has turned village life upside-down in about three-quarters of the country, to the trafficking that has accompanied the disruption in rural life or victims of domestic violence — or of a gruesome combination of these elements.
Hira Tamang was forced into marriage by her future husband’s family at age 17. While she worked he spent the days drinking or smoking hash. When he was not high he beat her. “He also hit the baby and when I tried to take her he beat me as if to kill me,” Tamang told IPS two days after her graduation.
One day her husband and some family members again thrashed her and “left me for dead” inside the locked room of a house. The next morning she woke up and escaped through an unlocked window.
Walking slowly to her parents’ village Tamang was intercepted by her husband’s group, who again beat her and took the baby. Passers-by then delivered the injured woman to her parents’ home.
“I sent my father to get the baby but they wouldn’t give her to him, and then I sent my brother but the same thing happened. Since then I haven’t had contact with them,” she says. That was 1 ½ years ago.
But Tamang’s woes did not end. Her husband’s family informed Maoists that she had deserted him and the baby and should be ‘recruited’ into their movement. The rebels condemned the husband’s actions but visited Tamang’s parents’ house four or five times to try and persuade her to join.
Finally she told them, “You can kill me right here right now but I won’t go with you.” The rebels left and soon after Tamang travelled to Kathmandu with her father to visit an older sister, who told her about Navajyoti and offered to help pay her tuition. “I was so happy because I had no money,” recalls the woman.
Asked about her future Tamang says, “I will go once to the village and I will try. I have found a new life and would also like to open the eyes of other women…If the situation is so bad I cannot stay then I will return to Kathmandu but I don’t know what I will do.”
Increasingly, Nepal’s rural women find themselves bewildered by the upheaval occurring in their families and villages.
According to a recent report on people displaced by the conflict, “many women have become de facto household heads and are totally disoriented and bewildered about how to manage their lives and take on the sudden responsibilities of managing households.”
“There are many girls who have left the villages and continue to leave…most are not able to go home for fear of again being pressurised to join the Maoists and that their visit may escalate problems for their families,” adds the report by the South Asia Forum for Human Rights.
But life for women in one of Asia’s poorest nations has never been easy. Seven hundred and forty women out of 100,000 die giving birth, and only 18 percent of births are attended by a skilled practitioner. In neighbouring India the rate is 540 deaths per 100,000 births, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Seventy percent of Nepali women 15 and over are illiterate, double the rate for Nepali men. In India, 50 percent of women are illiterate.
In Beijing this week to mark 10 years since the World Conference for Women, Minister for Women Shrestha said it is clear the government is trying its best to translate its international commitments to women’s rights into reality, reported Nepal’s government media.
Navajyoti’s Sister Teresa told IPS demand keeps growing for the centre’s six-month training programme. When the Sisters of Nazareth took it over in 1988 they accepted 10-15 women for each course. Now they take in 25 on a first-come-first-served basis.
Three sisters, two staff members and outside experts teach the courses, which include first aid, sewing and knitting. “They learn to speak in front of a group, conduct meetings, write applications,” adds Sister Teresa.
But the biggest change happens inside the women, she adds. “The very fact that they’re able to share what they’ve gone through is something new. I spend a lot of time listening to them about their experiences.”
“I insist they make their own decisions. So far their families, men, have made all their decisions for them. My question to them always is: ‘how long are you going to let someone else make your decisions for you’?” adds Sister Teresa.
She says most graduates are very active in their villages. “Either they form a women’s group where they can get the support of one another, savings and credit groups (or) they conduct training programmes for women, farmers, youth groups, etc.”
“Wherever our trainees have gone and worked there have been a lot of changes in the villages themselves,” she adds.
“Before coming to Navajyoti I didn’t know anything; I couldn’t even speak Nepali. I always felt very afraid to talk in case I made a mistake,” says another graduate, Deurupi Budamagar, 29.
“Now I know many things. I can’t write but I can read and I can talk about my problems in front of people.”
Budamagar’s husband was murdered six years ago by security forces who took him away one day as he tended his potato crop. His family found his body in a field two days later; the army denied knowing about the case.
The woman remarried and is now pregnant with her third child. Her current husband left his village fearing Maoists would force him to fight and despite studying to be a teacher, he plans to leave any day now to work as a labourer in a Persian Gulf country, following on the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of poor Nepalis.
Today, says Budamagar, “Maoists enter every house” to force young people to join up. In July they took her female cousin who was studying in Grade 10. “They said, ‘we will take one of you from each house to fight. If you survive, good, if you die it is for the cause’.”
Despite the risk, Budamagar plans to return home to share her newfound knowledge. “I cannot write but I can use my mouth — I need the help of my friend who can write. I have confidence but we are still scared of the Maoists and the army also.” Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service. All rights reserved.