Nepal: Widows' Organization to Address Discrimination & Rights
By Lily Thapa, Director and founder of Women for Human Rights, working to support single women who have lost their husbands.
When my husband died I was 29 years old with two young children. I was educated and from a professional middle-class family in Katmandu, the capital of Nepal. My husband was of similar background.
But with his death I realized for myself that education could make inroads into a society only up to a point. In Nepal which is mostly a Hindu society, deep-rooted religious traditions, some of them blatantly discriminating against women, are difficult to change. And this is what I faced, an experience so traumatic that I was jolted into working for change.
As is common practice I lived with my husbands-in-laws and had three children. The first steps after my husband died, was expectations that I, as a widow, follow the religious norms. This meant, among other things, drastic change in my lifestyle. I had to wear white clothes for a year, cut my hair, and completely reject any jewelry. I still recall the time when I was forced to take off my nose ring. When I found it difficult to get rid of my nose ring, I was confronted with a knife yielding man who was ready to cut it out. I was horrified. I was suffering from the loss of my husband but also was now face to face with the torment of my family. The life of a Nepalese widow, I realized, was inhuman.
This is why I gathered enough courage to start a movement to support women who loose their husband. When I started out, there were many female groups fighting for women`s rights but had not really taken up the discrimination against widows. So a group of widows got together to talk about our concerns and how we can face the future. At the beginning we just hugged each other and cried. Even that was a huge relief to us, to have the space to talk about the discrimination each one of faced. Some of the women said they were treated like animals and made to feel utterly unworthy members of society just because they did not have husbands. They were treated as symbols of bad luck and shunned by their neighbours. They had no property rights. Widows were often kept away from their own children as her offsprings were commonly called “ horses without saddles.” Indeed, poverty is part of a single woman`s life. With women in rural areas in particular marrying as young as 17 years, the chances of her loosing her husband when she is still quite young, is high.
I realized these practices were aimed at keeping women ignorant of their rights. So, since I was working as a teacher, I began to use a classroom in the school as a place where we could get together, Later, I registered myself in a management programme in Sweden where I learned how to launch and sustain my own group. This was a turning point in my life. I returned to Katmandu and started a volunteer group of women without their husbands and their supporters and we worked to raise the public profile of the issues we faced and showed to other that we can contribute to betterment society. Towards advocacy we conducted research on religion and culture and discussed objectively the roots of discrimination against the message of harmony and tolerance which is the strongest message in any religion. We invited various stakeholders in social development including religious leaders and the older generation and our events showed to them how discrimination is not really written in the religion. We also compiled evidence that proved widows are forced into prostitution, face sexual and other physical abuse and are tormented by being separated from their children. The mother-in-laws who have usually spearheaded the discrimination, change immediately after they listen to us and they realize the wives of their dead sons are the women who represent the spirit of their husbands. By also providing livelihood training and education we have also helped the young mothers to restart their lives again by becoming economically independent.
Major achievements of our advocacy include pressuring the Nepal government to have a National Action Plan for Widows under the Ministry for Women`s Affairs and an Emergency Fund for Widows to help them to begin life again. Some legal changes for single women are there is no need for male consent for single women to apply for a passport and property already inherited when she married, does not have to be returned. There are currently 425 groups of single women in 68 districts registered under my organization. Total number of members are 40,000. We are now lobbying for the government to provide job quotas, discounts on transportation and we also need to establish more single womens groups at the district level and increase members. My work must go on.