Dwarfed by its neighbours China and India, the country has spent the past two years recovering from prolonged political instability which, according to the UN, left over 12,000 people dead and some 100,000 displaced. In 2006, the monarchy relinquished power after a decade of armed conflict with the Communist Party of Nepal (the Maoists), paving the way for elections to be held in a new, secular federal state. The Maoists won the largest number of seats in 2008 and formed a coalition government that included most of the other parties. But tensions remained and in May 2009 the coalition disintegrated and was succeeded by another that excluded the Maoists.
The new government is trying to address the long-standing issues of class and regional differences in a constitution that protects the rights of workers and labourers. The majority of the population depends on agriculture for food and income, and the UN estimates that about 40% of Nepalis live in poverty. But, given that nearly all Nepali women are believed to have been affected by the conflict in some way, tackling gender issues is equally important.
During the conflict, some women chose to join the insurgents but many were forcibly recruited, especially in the rural areas. Others suddenly found themselves in the position of primary breadwinner, as well as caregiver, in the absence of their husbands or male relatives. Rape, kidnapping and prostitution increased, and their access to education and healthcare was interrupted. Many still bear deep scars, both physical and emotional, especially those who have been stigmatised because they were victims of conflict-related sexual violence.
Since 2006, women have been seen as both defenders of the status quo and agents of change. Their political involvement both during and after the insurgency resulted in gains in equality and the perception of women, but also fuelled suspicions and a false link between gender equality and the Maoists. The challenge now is to defend the achievements in terms of equality, and to ensure that these achievements are built on and enshrined in legislation and policy programmes.
At present, a plethora of development programmes exist in Nepal, launched by the government, international institutions and local and international NGOs. Many of them seek to promote leadership and capacity-building for women. These initiatives have yielded some results - Nepalese women are playing a greater role in politics and economics these days - but large-scale changes will require time and sustained efforts to overhaul school curricula and instil a new media culture that dispels the idea of women being socially and economically inferior to men.
The government of Nepal has consistently said that it would work to improve the status of women, but to date there have been few voices championing women’s rights. No women were involved in drafting the temporary constitution and the Nepalese Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation contains only men at decision-making levels. One positive step has been the decision to adopt a National Action Plan (NAP) on women, peace and security. Nepal is the first South Asian country and one of only 24 states worldwide to have done so.
NAPs are intended to help states implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and its related resolutions, in particular 1820. The former focusses on the inclusion of women in peace processes, ensuring that they are present at all levels as catalysts, negotiators, facilitators and activities and that women reap the dividends of peace. The latter concentrates on violence against women in conflict, in particular sexual violence and the need to sensitise peacekeepers and security officials - both male and female - to the particular needs and experiences of women in conflict.
The plans provide an opportunity to identify national priorities and the resources needed to implement them. In Nepal, the NAP aims to develop gender-sensitive policies and institutions to ensure effective post-conflict reconstruction and development. Madhav Prasad Ghimire, Chief Secretary of government said: “[we are] willing to collaborate with civil society organisations for the implementation of the NAP. Count on us if you face any challenges” - hopefully this signals renewed commitment and not just lip service to gender equality and empowerment in Nepal.
Neena Lama is studying international relations at Northampton University and is currently a membership intern at UNA-UK