Women’s economic empowerment

As a relative newcomer to Nepal, I am intrigued by its history.  I believe a good way to understand the present and gauge the future is by looking at the past.  Those who know me, also know I am passionate about the place of women in every country I’ve worked in, none more so than Nepal.

Commentators tell me that Nepal has undergone significant economic and political transitions in the past 30 years. And that women have always played a significant role during the process.  While these things are never linear, often, they tell me, it was hoped that a political transition would lead to an economic one, one that would benefit everyone.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, while poverty rates were falling dramatically, GDP growth did not follow a similar trajectory.  While neighbors were racing ahead, Nepal’s average annual growth during the conflict years of 1996-2006 was 4%, since the end of the conflict it has only grown by 0.5%.

I have also been told that during the armed conflict, women were not only victims, but they were also  active participants. Breaking the stereotype prevalent in the society, they also took up non-traditional roles by joining the Maoist army and acting as head of households in absence of men.  Previously, Nepali women had also established themselves as key actors of socio-political changes during the Rana regime.  They were actively redefining the roles of women.

We know from evidence that opportunities for significant policy reform and opportunities to catalyse economic growth are most fruitful during these economic and societal transitions.  So, were the various changes also the platform for women’s economic empowerment?

I know from my British history that theFirst World War (1914-1918) led to women’s economic empowerment in Britain.  With millions of men away from home, women filled manufacturing and agricultural positions on the home front.  Others provided support on the front lines as nurses and as doctors.  For the first time women were employed in arms production, the civil service, and served in the forces itself.  After the war, although women reluctantly returned to their previous domestic roles to make way for the returning men who needed jobs,, their contribution to wartime economy could not be ignored., By 1918 women over the age of 30 were able to vote,and by 1928 the age of suffrage fell to 21. I reap the benefits today because of the women of those times who struggled to change the place of women forever.  Without them women like me would never have risen to the higher ranks of the civil service.

Living in Nepal, I can see some parallels.  With the increased migration of men for work, the number of women headed households has increased. The 2016 Nepal Demographic Health Survey tells us that one third of households are  headed by women,98% of the workers employed in agriculture are women, andI know from the UK’s Rural Access Programme (RAP), which builds roads in remote places, that some fantastic women are employed as road builders.  RAP has provided 21 million working days over its long history and women have taken a 40% share of those days – earning equally with men.

The legislative environment in Nepal is also, in large part, equally conducive. The interim Constitution of 2007 officially enshrined provisions of gender equality, inclusion, and rights against discrimination and created a quota of 33% women representation at the national and local level.  Its successor continued that and expressed a commitment to end gender discrimination.

So, the question is why did these transitions not lead to a gender balance in the structure of the economy?  Why are women civil servants still in the lower grades? And why has increased representation of women in elected positions not yet led to political empowerment? Why has a political and economic transition not resulted in economic empowerment for women?  Why do I frequently sit on panels where women are absent?  Why am I told by the organizers that they have to ‘work with what they’ve got’?

I am informed this is a structural societal problem.  Amongst other things, it goes back to education.  Women are less likely to have at least some secondary or higher education than men, some girls are excluded altogether. The role of women in the household,, expectations for marriage and children, caste, ethnicity etc. all play a role in limiting the opportunities and aspirations.  It’s a self-fulling prophecy:  if a woman expects nothing, she is never disappointed. Neither is her family.  Neither is her government.  But as such, she will be trapped in a spiral of low expectation of herself, forced on her by external cultural factors.  In sheer economic terms, is this the best use of a valuable resource?

Women, of course, face many challenges in the UK in their aspiration for equality.  But unlike after the FirstWorld War in Britain, Nepali women appear to have more hurdles to overcome than their British counterparts.

It’s clear that the voice of women is critical.  According to some commentators, a citizen’s ability to express themselves is the single most defining element of a functional democracy. And yet, societal norms often limit the voices of women or leaves them unheard altogether.

But, there are grounds for Nepalis to be optimistic.  The legal framework is slowly enabling more women to participate in the political process. Some are even in leadership positions. The government has introduced gender policies and programmes in government bodies, and  women are also taking steps toward leadership in the private sector.  Women who were previously trail blazers for women’s rights and who were successful in acquiring higher positions are now in good company with others.  Women are in the streets and on social media.  A collective voice is growing.  This enhanced leadership has the potential for a paradigm shift in development of Nepal.  Women and men are creating the need and urgency to alter the perception of the public, and male political leaders, towards women leaders.

The UK has a longstanding relationship with Nepal and we are proud to call Nepal our friend.  Our programs are supporting the economic and social transition which Nepal is undertaking.  We work in partnership with the government, civil society, businesses, etc to support Nepal’s moves towards federalism and economic growth.

The UK’s legal base for our global assistance requires us to ‘have regard to the desirability of providing development assistance that is likely to contribute to reducing poverty in a way which is likely to contribute to reducing inequality between persons of different gender’.  We cannot act without it.

History tells us that the UK reached somewhat of a tipping point in women’s rights and economic empowerment after the FirstWorld War.  Change was quick and decisive.  I wonder if Nepal is approaching a similar tipping point or whether it will be a gradual transition.  Whichever, it is for the people of Nepal to decide.  My view however is that progressing women’s empowerment is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.

This piece was written by Lisa Choegyal for NEF’s nefport, a quarterly edition published by NEF.