A Conversation with Nepali Journalist, Women’s Rights Advocate Jaya Luintel
March 5, 2014
Ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, In Asia editor Alma Freeman interviewed Nepali radio journalist and women’s rights advocate, Jaya Luintel, on women’s changing role in politics and society in Nepal, the country’s wide gender gap, and hopes of democratic momentum. Luintel, who was recently selected as one of 10 inaugural 2014 Asia Foundation Development Fellows, is the founder of the organization, The Story Kitchen, and last month organized the first ever national-level conference of women radio producers and broadcasters in Nepal, as part of World Radio Day.
Your career as a journalist began with Radio Sagarmatha in 1999, when you started the radio’s first show on gender equality and women’s rights. What motivated you to start this show?
One morning in early 2002, during our editorial meeting, the station manager came to the newsroom and told us that Oxfam in Nepal was interested in supporting Radio Sagarmatha to produce a radio show on gender issues. He asked if anyone was interested in leading the production team, and I was the only one to raise my hand. I knew very little about gender issues or Oxfam’s work, but spent a great deal of time researching gender issues, and was heavily influence by the book “Half the World Half a Chance,” by Julia C. Moose. Together with Oxfam, we came up with the name for the program “Saha-Astittwa,” which means “co-existence.”
Our first broadcast was on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2002, when we launched our hour-long weekly program. At that time there were very few radio programs focused on women’s rights. Most “women’s programs” focused on making pickles at home, cooking, knitting, and so on. Saha-Astittwa introduced the issues of gender equality, women’s rights, and co-existence, with a focus on social justice, women’s identity, and treatment of women in public.
This exposed me to hundreds of women’s stories. Every time I talked to women and girls, I asked them what their dream was. I later realized that we Nepali women were never taught to dream for our own future. As a daughter we followed our father’s dream, as a wife we fulfill our husband’s dream, and when we get old, we have to live up to our son’s dream. For me, having my own dream to help other women dream for their own future through radio programming was very challenging yet very exciting.
As a women’s rights advocate in Nepal, what are some of the biggest changes that you’ve noticed in the areas of gender equality and women’s participation in society?
The three biggest changes I’ve noticed in Nepali society for women over the last 20 years are: women are now capable of raising their voice, more girls are attending school, and women are becoming more independent economically.
According to the 2011 national census, the literacy rate for women is 57.4 percent, up from 42.8 percent in 2001. Similarly, the percentage of women’s ownership of fixed property (land and homes) has increased from 11.7 percent in 2001 to 19.7 percent in 2011. According to the World Bank, the maternal mortality ratio in last five years (per 100,000 live births) has reduced to 170 from 250. Though statistics show that more girls and women are becoming literate, there is still a high school drop-out rate for girls, and the quality of education they get compared to boys and men – even from the same family – is not equal. Deeply rooted patriarchal norms, beliefs, and values also create barriers for women to exercise their freedoms and rights in reality.
In the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap report, Nepal ranks very low – 121st out of 136 countries in terms of gender gap overall. What are the major factors contributing to such a wide gender gap?
In 1956, the first formal development plan and policy was introduced in Nepal. In 1980, 10 years before the restoration of democracy, the sixth “Five-Year Plan” included women in the development efforts for the first time. After this move, development plans and policies in Nepal were increasingly geared toward addressing the issue of gender disparity. Later, the ninth and tenth plans were quite vocal to end gender disparity. A separate ministry for women in Nepal was established in 1995 right after Fourth World Conference of Women in Beijing.
There have been other positive changes both in laws and policies. Despite these changes at the legal and policy level, there are many obstacles in turning gender equality into a reality as gender biases have been firmly rooted in the legal, economic, cultural, and social framework of Nepali society. For example, the percentage of girls attending school is increasing, both at the primary and secondary level, but when it comes to tertiary (university or college) level, the number of female students is less than half that of men. In many cases, women are forced to leave school because daughters are seen as a burden for the family and they want to shift this burden to another family by marrying her off. Nepal has some of the highest child marriage rates in the world.
Meanwhile, Nepal has the highest women representation in parliament (33 percent) in South Asia.
It’s true that the representation of women in Nepal’s parliament is the highest in South Asia. But while the female-to-male ratio of women’s representation in parliament is 0.50, the female-to-male ratio in ministerial positions is 0.08. This shows that women are still not chosen for key leadership positions.
I just re-listened to an interview that I did back in 2006 with then Maoist leader Ms. Onsari Gharti who was recently elected as a vice-chair of the Constituent Assembly. That was her first radio interview after Nepal’s government and the Maoists signed the Comprehensive Peace Accord, and the Maoists began to come out from underground life. She was also one of the female Maoist combatants. I bring her up as an example of how women’s representation in parliament also represents women of diverse communities, political background, education, social status, caste, and ethnic groups.
Unfortunately, while the number of women in parliament has increased, they are still lacking in meaningful participation. The interim constitution of Nepal explicitly says that in every state body, women’s participation should be at least 33 percent. This was the case in the previous Constituent Assembly, but we don’t yet know the final percentage of women who will be in the newly elected CA.
For some, Nepal’s new prime minister raises hopes of democratic momentum for the country, long stalemated by political conflict. What do you see as the biggest priorities in terms of securing women’s rights in the coming decade?
Education, access to economic resources, and health are definitely major issues for women. In my opinion, by improving these areas, women’s lives will be enhanced but won’t be transformed. If the government is really willing to transform the lives of Nepali women, efforts to change our current social and political structure – which is patriarchal – is essential. While laws, policies, and programs that include women’s rights and equality are important, we also need more effective implementation and monitoring of these laws.
Nepal’s issue of citizenship carries a legacy of discrimination and marginalization of women. Nepal’s citizenship law does not recognize women as independent individuals. For example, a Nepali woman after reaching the age of 18 can get a citizenship certificate only if she gets recommended by her father (if not married) or by her husband (if married). The interim constitution of Nepal says that the recommendation of her mother is also valid, but this is not being implemented effectively. In many cases officials don’t take the document forward from a woman unless it was submitted by her father or her husband’s copy of citizenship certificate. So, if a father or husband is unhappy with his daughter or wife, he can simply deny his recommendation for citizenship. During one of the interviews that I conducted for The Story Kitchen, sociologist Dr. Meena Poudel said: “The new legal provision in the new constitution should allow the state, not a father, husband, or any other individual to recommend citizenship for both men and women in Nepal.” If this kind of legal provision could be formulated and implemented it would help women to establish their own autonomy, and increase their ability to participate more fully in society.
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