Women in Nepal: growing voice, now against proposed restriction

The proposed law requires that any woman below 40, if travelling abroad, needs to present a letter of consent from the guardian of her family — implying a male member — or from the ward office, specifying the reason of travel.

Protesters, mostly social activists, writers and journalists, and a large number of them women, are out on the streets in Nepal against a proposed law that puts restrictions on foreign travel for women below age 40.

The law

The proposed law requires that any woman below 40, if travelling abroad, needs to present a letter of consent from the guardian of her family — implying a male member — or from the ward office, specifying the reason of travel. The protesters call their agitation an assertion of their right to justice from “an establishment controlled by males and insensitive towards women rights and dignity”. The placards they hold display slogans laced with sarcasm, such as “E Hajur, euta prashna sodhna painchha?hami le sas lina kasko anumati chahinchha?” (Do I please have the right to ask a question? Who do I need to get permission to breathe from?)

Vulnerable government

Nepal is currently in a political crisis with Prime Minister K P Oli having dissolved the House of Representatives two years before it completes its term, accusing his opponents within the Nepal Communist Party of non-cooperation.

In the wake of editorials and the ongoing protests, immigration authorities have gone defensive. “It’s not law yet, but something that is being proposed before the Home Ministry in view of series incidents of assault and exploitation on women abroad,” an official in the Immigration Department said.

At a time when people of the country are speculating how the Supreme Court will rule on the legality of the dissolution of the House, neither faction of the Nepal Communist Party has responded to the proposed immigration law. But with the anger directed at the government, many feel the protest may hurt the already vulnerable Oli the most. His popularity has fallen after he arbitrarily dissolved the House. Even beyond the current controversy, he has been described as an “anti-women” leader several times. His government is under criticism for failing to bring to justice those guilty in a large number of rape cases (1,271 rape cases in the last 10 months, the victims including 804 minors). 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@ieexplained) and stay updated with the latest

During the last two years, much of the discourse around women’s justice has centred on the rape and murder of three teenagers. Amid a series of agitations, Oli repeatedly assured that the guilty would be punished, but the investigation has made little progress. Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal upset protesters further when he said about the first of these three cases: “This was neither the first case of rape and murder, nor will it be the last in the country.”

Trafficking context

Besides rape cases, a larger number of Nepali women are trafficked to the Middle East. Official records show that on an average, three to four of these workers come back home dead every day, while some others return penniless, sexually abused and physically tormented. “It was because of these complaints that a law was being mooted for a long time,” the immigration official said.

Agencies that recruit employees for the Gulf countries do get registered with Nepali missions in those respective countries, but clandestine agents involved in trafficking take women to various destination via India . “Once they get there, their passports are seized, and they are literally captives. We appreciate the concern shown by women groups, but as a government we cannot close our eyes to the fate of these Nepalis who went on their own, without immigration ever getting the chance to check their documents,” the official said.

Around half a million Nepalis, many of them women, leave the country each year for studies and better opportunities. Remittance contributes nearly one third of the GDP.

What next for govt

The sweeping content of the proposed law, with women needing a “certificate of being bona fide travellers to any destination from a male family member or from the ward”, has made the government position weak. It is unlikely that the government’s silence will end the current row. The protests against the proposed law have reinforced the already ongoing civil society protests against the government, and is fast growing in intensity and following. It remains to be seen the government will be eventually forced to apologise and withdraw.

When Oli had given only two Cabinet seats to women despite their one-third representation in Parliament, prominent leaders within the Nepal Communist Party had openly accused him of being anti-women. The image has stuck.

The current protests are being held in different parts of the capital. They include a march to Singha Durbar, the PM’s office, and have taken an anti-Oli turn. “We will not tolerate authoritarianism in any form,” said Hima Bista, one of the most prominent among the protesters.

Women in politics

An organised voice from women and an open display of strength, cutting across party lines, may be new in Nepal politics, but female literacy and participation in politics have been visibly increasing over the years. Women have been voters since Nepal first witnessed a democratic election in 1958, and have had representation in the Cabinet and important positions in Parliament right from the beginning. The Interim Constitution of 2007 made a provision for at least one-third women representation in Parliament. But with a male leadership in every party, and members having to follow a whip, independent voices have rarely emerged from women. Until now.

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