Vaf-fa-Nepali - "Before I met my husband, I'd never fallen in love. I'd stepped in it a few times though." If Rita Rudner had been a Gurung woman living in the Terai part of Nepal, she would have said: "Before I met my husband, I wasn't allowed to do anything, and now I'm married I'm not really allowed to do much more."
We were lucky enough to be in Nepal for the Festival of Teej, a day for Nepali women to part-ay. Kathmandu turned into a sea of red, green and gold (which made a nice change from black smog and dust), as the women donned shiny new saris and adorned their arms with red bangles. Though it may appear to be a happy day full of dancing in the streets and great that the ladies have a special day, the women's rights campaigners didn't quite get the cut-through they needed, as Teej actually just honours the husbands. The women give thanks for finding a good husband and pray that their husband will have good health for the coming year. The women have to fast whilst the men gorge on feasts, prepared by the hungry women of course. The men get a day off work. Hang on a minute here, cries Ms Pankhurst.
Other than in Kathmandu City, women still have a hard time of it in Nepal. Women only truly gain status in traditional society when they bear their husband a son. If she doesn't have a child in the first ten years, her old man is legally allowed to re-marry. Female mortality rates are higher and literacy rates, at just 35%, are lower than men's. In their patriarchal society, boys are strongly favoured over girls, who are often the last to eat at the table and the first to be pulled from school during financial difficulties. Women are still expected to marry their brother-in-law should their husband die, and her property is immediately turned over to her sons, on whom she must be financially dependent. Great if your son is Sir Alan Sugar; not so great if it's Harold Shipman. If a family has daughters only, one suitor is found to marry every single sister and take on their surname to keep the family line alive.
Thankfully, it has been getting better:
- Women are no longer expected to throw themselves on their husband's funeral pyre. Puts a new meaning to the song "Your Sex is on Fire".
- The rural custom of exiling women to cowsheds for four days during 'that time of the month' is now illegal. Just two weeks ago, a campaign by the Women Health Volunteers, with the support of the EU, reported to the Himalayan Times that they had been successful in eradicating the practice of 'chhaupadi' - where menstruating women are confined by witch doctors to purpose-built cowsheds and not allowed to eat or drink - in the region of Dadeldhura. Hurrah.
- Women under 35 can finally apply for a passport without their husband's or parent's permission.
Unfortunately, a study last year revealed that suicide, not child-birth complications, is now the number one cause of female death in Nepal. Locals here tell us that it's a sad possibility that the ongoing practice of forced marriages and the custom of outcasting widows from the community may have something to do with it (as does the happier cause of safer births). In 2008, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Saathi, a women's NGO based in Kathmandu, analysed gender-based violence in two districts. Over 80 per cent of respondents reported experiencing domestic violence from their husbands and other family members, and 74 per cent were forced to participate in marital rape. They speculate this may make many women reach for the 'self destruct' button.
Sure puts a hangover or running out of moisturiser into perspective, eh.