Nepal: Women Hold Up Half the Sky!
At the roof of the world, some of the most oppressed women on the planet are fighting for radical new solutions
Revolutionary Worker #1094, March 11, 2001
"The women in this village are blind--we
do not know anything. We don't know what is needed to change
our lives... We are all so busy at home that we don't have
time to think about our collective problems."
from a poor village in Nepal,
quoted in a 1997 report by the U.S. Agency
for International Development
I feel collective life is happier than
living an individual life. I have met many comrades and talked
with them. We share our happiness and sorrow. Now I am committed
to sacrifice in every way to liberate our class. Before the
initiation of the People's War I was very oppressed--on the
one hand by the government, and on the other hand by the men
in the family. All the housework was done by women. After
the initiation there have been many changes. All household
work is now done by men and women. Beside this, men inspire
us to go forward, fight to liberate women and participate
in the People's War.
in a guerrilla zone in Nepal
Sunsara was one of the many revolutionary
women I met when I traveled to Nepal in 1999. A People's War,
led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has been going
on there since 1996. And one of the most exciting things I
discovered as I traveled deep into the guerrilla zones, was
how in this revolution, as Mao Tsetung put it, "women
hold up half the sky."
Everywhere I went, I saw and heard how women's
anger and enthusiasm is fueling this struggle. And the more
I learned about the lives of women in Nepal, the more I understood
why, from the very beginning, women's participation in this
insurgency has been a mighty and growing force.
Nepal is a desperately poor country where
more than 80% of the people live in the countryside without
electricity, running water, or basic sanitation. More than
half earn less than a $1 a day. Peasants on tiny plots of
land live on the edge of deepening poverty, debt and hunger.
Women are doubly oppressed.
A common proverb in Nepal goes, "To be
born as a daughter is having ill fate." The reality behind
this saying is that women in Nepal are among the most oppressed
on the planet.
Feudal tradition and patriarchy subject the
women to a life of servitude to fathers, husbands and sons.
They have no right to inherit land. With a lot of the men
in the cities looking for work, the women do most of the farming--in
addition to taking care of the children, cooking, washing,
grazing animals and hauling water.
A peasant woman may get up at 4 a.m. and
not see the end of her day for 18 hours. Her life expectancy
is only 52 years.
In one village, I asked a young woman to
tell me about her day and she said: "I wake up at 5:00
a.m., prepare a simple soup for the family, get grass for
the goat, which takes five hours. Then I have to clean the
pots and dishes. I prepare food and eat and then take the
goats and cows to graze them and I also gather roots in the
forest. It's five o'clock by the time I get back from grazing
the animals. Then I have to prepare another meal. I also have
to gather firewood from the forest. I finally go to sleep
at 9:00 p.m."
Under feudalism, young girls are considered
"useful" when they can do chores. But after a woman
gets married, she lives with--and serves--her husband's household.
So many parents believe that "To get a girl is like watering
a neighbor's tree. You have the trouble and expense of nurturing
the plant but the fruits are taken by somebody else." This
is why most women in Nepal are denied an education. Almost
80% of women here cannot read or write--giving Nepal one of
the highest female illiteracy rates in the world.
Under feudal tradition, parents "arrange
marriages" and children have no say in whom they will
marry. Some daughters are married off as child brides before
they are even teenagers. Divorce is not allowed. A widow is
expected to spend the rest of her life mourning.
No Right to
Min Min Lama was 14 years old when she
was raped by the brother of her sister-in-law. When she discovered
she was pregnant, her sister-in-law wanted to protect her
brother and, without Min Min's knowledge, gave her a drug
which induced an abortion. When the aborted fetus was found
in a public toilet, the sister-in-law called the police. Min
Min was arrested and sentenced to 12 years in jail.
a BBC news article
about abortion in Nepal, 1999
"I was working in Bharatpur Hospital.
One woman was raped by a village man while her husband was
away and she got pregnant. She went to a quack and something
was put inside her vagina. After two days the fetus was expelled.
She dug a hole and put the fetus inside it. Three days after
the abortion she developed a fever, started bleeding and came
to the hospital while I was on duty. By this time, a neighbor
had already complained to the local police that she had an
illegal abortion. The police came to the hospital and brought
the woman to me and asked me to write a report stating whether
she had undergone abortion or not. I talked to the woman and
found out the whole story. In order to save her from the police
and to save her family life, I gave the report that there
had been no abortion and she had a very bad infection which
required hospitalization. Of course it was not true medically
but I do not feel guilty about it, because if I had not written
this report the police would have taken her and her life would
have been shattered."
quoted in a paper about the effects
of Nepal's abortion law on women
Abortion is illegal in Nepal, even if a woman's
life is threatened. At least 100 women here are in jail for
the "crime" of terminating a pregnancy. And because Nepalese
law defines abortion as a form of "homicide," many of these
women have long jail sentences.
A lot of women also die from unsafe illegal
abortions--about 4,000 every year. They come in to
local hospitals--their uteruses and intestines punctured by
some sharp object like a bamboo stick, even a shard of glass.
Worldwide, the percentage of maternal deaths due to unsafe
abortions is 13%. In Nepal it is closer to 50%.
of Women, Body and Soul
Seema had left the poverty of her village
to work in Kathmandu. she was barely 12 when a smooth-talking
flesh trader lured her to Bombay with talk of a better job.
She hoped to become a film star. Instead she was sold into
a brothel. At first she resisted, screaming, crying and fighting
off prospective customers. But the madam who ran the brothel
would have none of it. She sent in a muscled toughie to hold
the girl down while an old man raped her. The pain was so
intense that Seema lost consciousness and had to be hospitalized
for a week.
told by an organization fighting
the trafficking of women in Nepal
Sometimes it's a father, brother or other
relative in the village. Sometimes it's the owner of a factory.
A woman sold for $600 or $200--the price of a water buffalo
or slightly more than a video recorder. Kidnapped and taken
to a brothel across the border in India--where they cannot
speak the language and are isolated, far from home. Many die
in India. Most never make it back to their village. If they
do escape and return to Nepal, they are ostracized.
A raid of a brothel in Bombay in 1996 of
218 Nepalese girls found that 70% of them were HIV positive.
Every year, as many as 10,000 Nepalese girls,
most between the age of 9 and 16, are sold to brothels in
India. Some studies estimate that as many as 200,000 Nepalese
women now work in India as prostitutes. Most of these women
die before their 30th birthday.
"Deukis" also contributes to this
trafficking of women. This is a system in Nepal in which rich
childless families buy girls from poor rural families and
offer them to the temples as though they were their own. These
girls are forced into prostitution. According to a 1997 UN
Special Report on Violence Against Women, 17,000 girls were
given as deukis in 1992.
Meanwhile, the Nepalese government treats
women who have been kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery
as criminals--to be hounded, hunted down and punished.
At a seminar organized by an NGO (non-governmental
organization) and the Kathmandu police, school teachers and
social workers came up with a list of punitive measures for
women who "willingly" become prostitutes. These included
registration and identity cards for all women between
12 and 35 years old to allow monitoring at a village level;
the amendment of laws so that women can be more easily prosecuted
for becoming prostitutes; the strengthening of village authority
to punish women who come back and induce others to go to India;
confiscating property of women who return from brothels; and
organizing teachers and students to collect data on women
who return with HIV or AIDS.
Women in the
"Before the initiation of the People's
War I did not know anything about politics or parties. But
after the initiation [of the armed struggle] one of my relatives
suggested I take part in the local cultural group and asked
me to go to their rehearsal. I didn't tell my mother or father
about this--I only told my older brother who said, 'Go ahead,
if you want to die... Can you carry a gun on your shoulder?'
I replied, `You didn't give me a chance to study and now I
am eager to solve the problems of the people and the nation.
I want to fight for liberation. If you won't allow me to go
I will rebel.' "
an 18-year-old woman guerrilla
Rachana was a member of a squad I traveled
with in Rolpa, a district in Western Nepal where the People's
War has been the strongest. I remember one afternoon, watching
Rachana studying, practicing her reading and writing, her
eyes stuck to a dog-eared page in deep concentration. I thought
about how this extraordinary scene is being created in guerrilla
zones across Nepal.
Young peasant women--illiterate, facing nothing
but a back-breaking future--leaving their villages, taking
up arms, learning to read and write and studying the political
and theoretical questions of the revolution they are fighting.
Looking at the status of women in Nepal,
it's not hard to see how such brutal and demeaning conditions
drive many women into the arms of the revolution. When the
People's War began, it was like opening the gates of a prison--with
thousands of women rushing forward to join the fight. I heard
stories of women leaving their villages--defying backward-thinking
fathers and husbands, escaping loveless marriages, and getting
out from under the dictatorial thumb of mothers-in-law--to
join the people's army. Government repression against the
People's War has also inspired many women to join the fight.
One 15-year-old woman guerrilla told me:
"500 police raided our village and arrested
just about everyone--even the children and old people. My
mother was arrested and I was also arrested and kept in custody.
There was so much repression by the police, so I joined the
cultural team of the party. And because of the exploitation
and oppression of the poor masses, and especially that suffered
by women, I was inspired to find a way to free the masses
from such a situation. I found this was being done by the
CPN (Maoist) so I joined the party."
Women are now participating in the armed
struggle as fighters and commanders at all the different military
levels of squad, platoon, and company. And they are also a
big part of the local militias, as well as the revolutionary
women's organizations. I will never forget the fire in the
eyes of the young woman squad member who told me what it was
like to join the armed struggle. She said: "I knew a little
about the revolutions in Russia and Peru. And I knew that
women there had participated with guns on their shoulders.
After some time I became a squad member and picked up the
gun like those women.... Now that I'm with the squad, I feel
more responsibility to overthrow the reactionaries and make
a new Nepal. I see how many women are attracted to the People's
War and I'm going to work to recruit more women into the people's
At least 2,000 people have already been killed
by the police in this war, including 200 women. And many women
have also been raped, brutalized and jailed.
One woman organizer told me: "After the
initiation the reactionaries put a lot of effort into trying
to stop women from participating in the People's War. Thousands
of women have been raped and many women are in jail. I'll
give you one example. During a local election the police came
to ask women to participate in the elections. But the women
refused. So the police rounded up more than 14 women and raped
them all in one place. There was one 12-year-old girl that
they raped who was so badly injured she could not even walk
for one week."
Many women have lost husbands, sons and daughters.
And in almost every village I visited, relatives of revolutionary
martyrs came to tell me their stories--full of grief but also
pride in the fact that one of their relatives had given their
life for the revolution.
In traditional Nepalese society, losing a
husband can mean economic hardship. A woman without children
may have no one to take care of her when she gets old. Children
who lose their parents become destitute orphans.
But for the revolutionary women who lose
their husbands or children there is a larger sense of "family."
The party and the people's army make sure the relatives of
martyrs are taken care of. Funds are collected for them, they
are given a share of land seized by the people's army. And
the children of martyrs are taken care of by the larger revolutionary
The fight for women's equality and liberation
is woven into the very fabric of this People's War. And where
the revolution is beginning to exercise new people's power,
women are seeing some concrete outlines of a new society where
the people can get rid of all forms of oppression, including
the oppression of women.
One woman revolutionary told me: "There
have been many changes in people's thinking since the initiation.
Fathers and brothers are now involved in things like cooking,
getting water, washing dishes. There is also a change in the
women's thinking. Before, women were not permitted to do things
like make the roof of the house or plow the fields. But now
where the People's War is going on, it is easy for women to
do this. Before women didn't make baskets and mats, according
to tradition. And women used to think they weren't good enough
to do this work. But when we dared to do this work it was
easy. So if we dare we can do anything--there's no distinction
between men and women."
In areas where the government has lost control,
the party is leading the masses to exercise a new people's
power. And women are a strong backbone of the people's committees
that have been organized to oversee and run various aspects
of village life.
A woman in Rukum told me: "In our district
there have been many changes in the attitudes and practices
regarding women. For example we are involved in the judiciary
department (one of the people's power committees). And we
take part in solving many problems--like cases of second marriages,
where we guarantee the right of property for the first wife.
People who want to get divorced appeal to the people's court
and we decide the case. Most are women who want to get divorced
because of beatings or attempted murder, or other abuses.
If a woman demands property from her husband when she gets
divorced, the court will help her. The court investigates
who is right and wrong in each case."
Women are also an important part of building
a new self-reliant economy in the areas where there is new
people's power. Thousands of women's groups have been organized
to support the People's War by carrying out collective farming,
raising animals and producing things like socks, gloves, and
Traditionally, women cannot inherit land.
But agrarian revolution is central to this People's War and
land reform, carried out under the slogan "land to the
tiller," also applies the principle of "women's equal
right to property." So in the guerrilla zones, many women
are getting land in their own name for the very first time.
Many other feudal traditions are being challenged--like
the strong preference for sons, the treatment of women as
"untouchable" during menstruation, polygamy, arranged
marriages, and the belief that widows should mourn for the
rest of their lives. Some traditional celebrations are also
being transformed by the revolution. For example, the Hindu
celebration "Teej" is a day-long fast imposed on women. On
this day married women are supposed to pray for the longevity
of their husbands and unmarried women are supposed to fast
and pray for an eligible husband. Now, this day is being transformed
into a day where women feast to strengthen themselves against
rape, torture and killings by the police.
Women in Nepal face the same situation that
millions and millions of women face around the world. The
problems of deep and intense poverty seem insurmountable.
The violence against women looks like it will never end. And
the weight of tradition--which brutalizes and murders women
on a daily basis--appears too powerful to challenge.
But the revolutionary women in Nepal are
defying all tradition's chains--living and dying to bring
about a new world and sending heart and hope to people all
over the globe.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolution
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