Centuries of discrimination and structural hierarchies take time to be dismantled
Those bright eyes and smile made me notice her the first time she entered the room. She looked young and had a year-old baby in her arms. By the time all the other people had come and sat in the room, she was breast feeding the infant. I had to ask her age. She is 24, she tells me, with two older children at home and a husband in Qatar. The young woman was participating in a group discussion I was conducting for a job assignment.
The last ten years of my life have been about meeting people like her, especially girls, women and transwomen of different regions, castes and classes of Nepal. My work has taken me to remote villages of far western Nepal and to the southern corners of the country.
I have walked together with a woman in Bajura who was carrying heavy fodder on her back while her 10-year-old daughter carried her mother’s new born baby, just 10 days old. I have sat with a woman in Rautahat who cried and showed me her in-laws’ teeth marks on her chest. I have listened to a woman in Gorkha who without hesitation told me that she started gaining weight and was sleeping better now that her drunken husband had died. And I have shared tea with a transgender woman in Butwal who had not yet revealed her identity to her own family.
When not travelling for work, I live in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. I have friends who are in very different occupations: some are bankers, some in business, some teach and some are in the world of music. Many of these people think that we have no more need to talk about women and their rights, that Nepal doesn’t need campaigns for women’s health and education rights. They believe we have already achieved those goals and we can now move beyond these issues.
I wish my friends could meet these women, sit and listen to them. Listen to a young woman sharing her narrative of dropping out of school after grade six because she got married. Listen to young women being pressured to keep giving birth until they give birth to sons. Listen to women who refer to their husbands as “mallik” who call them from Qatar and scold them for not doing household chores properly. Listen to women who don’t even want their abusive husbands to come back home from prison only to beat them and take away the money that they have earned.
I have sat with a woman in Rautahat who cried and showed me her in-laws’ teeth marks on her chest. I have listened to a woman in Gorkha who without hesitation told me that she started gaining weight and was sleeping better now that her drunken husband had died. And I have shared tea with a transgender woman in Butwal who had not yet revealed her identity to her own family.
When I started my professional life, I was in my mid-20s. A decade later, I am not sure if I have become more mature or if I have become much angrier and have less patience. I do get discouraged and disheartened at times when people show a lack of understanding and resistance to change.
While I understand there are people who question the relevance of the work that I and my colleagues do, it remains my hope that I can bring friends to the discussion table. I wish they understood our country’s diverse social fabric so that they did not speak only from their personal experiences. While that is my attempt, the real task is to keep working towards the goal.
And I believe the goal is to keep working to ensure women and members of other marginalised communities get closer to accessing their rights and services and ensure their concerns and voices are heard and recognised in policies, in government offices, and in the communities and families where they live.
Accompanying this effort is also a desire to work with men and boys to help them to see how patriarchy ruins their lives as well, and to work toward breaking the barriers that challenge and hinder the growth of all genders and people from all backgrounds and communities.
I hope someday we reach the stage in society when my friends are correct and we no more need to concern ourselves with these issues. I know we still have a long journey to travel and a lot of work to be done: centuries of discrimination and structural hierarchies take time to be dismantled.
I understand that my work is a small contribution to this bigger cause, but we all know that little drops of water make the mighty ocean.