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Nepali widows: changing colours, changing mindsets

The growing widows’ movement in Nepal is winning rights for single and widowed women, and challenging the deprivation and discriminatory practices that stem from age-old social norms and customs.

Widows and single women gather in Dharmasthali at the monthly saving credit programme. Photo: Uma Thapa,WHR

Nepal has a strong patriarchal culture in which women are traditionally marginalized and discriminated against at all levels. Women’s social status and position in society are normally determined by patriarchal traditions which uphold the general belief that women are subordinate to men and that women’s roles are confined to the domestic sphere. A woman's situation becomes even worse if she doesn't have a husband and is considered by society to be ill-omen.

In Nepal, a woman who is a widow is discriminated against, abused, harassed and deprived of social and economic rights,  including property rights. There are many cases of young widows being vulnerable and victimized -  both sexually and emotionally - within the family and in their communities. Religious beliefs, cultural values and social norms further prohibit the young women from taking part in any family or public activities, particularly if they are auspicious ones. According to a national census in 2010, over 86% widows are illiterate and dependent on others.  Because of natural disaster, conflict, disease and poverty, the number of young widows is increasing day by day in Nepal.

When I lost my husband at the age of 29 I was left with three small children to raise. I went through the trauma not just of losing my husband, but discovering the appalling way in my life as a widow had completely changed and the discriminatory direction in which it turned despite the fact that I was highly educated and from the middle class. I was not allowed to participate in any auspicious functions, and I was not allowed to wear red or bright colors since red and other bright colours are a symbol of marriagehood. This experience made me think of others who don't have anything - no education, skills, or assets.

Faced with having to live with these challenges in my life, I decided that I could no longer bear this discrimination since I too had dreams of being a part of the society on equal grounds -  as I had been when my husband was alive. I got together with a few other women friends who had also lost their husbands, and we started creating a platform for sharing the experiences and our emotions informally. In 1994 we formally established an organization for the rights of the widows in the name of Women for Human Rights (WHR).

There were many challenges to face as we worked to change the age-old social norms, culture, customs and values, but we have been able to achieve significant success for the rights of widows through advocacy from the grassroots up to the policy level.

Widows and single women gather post-earthquake for hygiene and health education. Photo: Women for Human Rights

We have been able to organize many thousands of widows in the groups across the country who are now mobilizing as change- makers in the communities. Starting with manifold struggles and challenges particularly because they were women, widows have been fighting against long established traditions and shaking the foundations of the social structure, and today they have established a great system of acting as pillars of support to many women - and not just widows.

The Red Colour movement ( Rato Rang Abhiyan) was a campaign called 'Color is our Birth Right' and we demanded to have the right to wear a colour of our own choice, instead of white -  which had been imposed for widows, and we were successful in breaking the negative norms and practices. While initially it was a great challenge for us to revolt against the religious and cultural practices, we worked closely with faith leaders and community people who were still resistant to the change. We offered counseling and advocacy, and awareness gradually sank in and communities started one by one to accept it. It was the biggest milestone in the movement.

The decade long armed conflict in Nepal has increased the thousands of young widows and wives of the disappeared who come from very diverse backgrounds. But despite having come from such diverse and opposing backgrounds, they are now united as a network called Nispakchya (meaning Fair) and in working together for a just, equitable and peaceful society.

Due to the groups mobilization in the community, families have started accepting their widowed daughters and daughter-in-laws, widows wearing colourful clothes, and participating in social activities and engaging as a social capital in the society. For the first time the government has mainstreamed widowhood agenda by including it in the National Action Plan, and it has also established Emergency Funds for widows.

The large number of women in our membership has been a major strength to us, and collectively we have been able to work in society, and with families as well. Strong advocacy and lobbying from the widows’ groups in the districts has resulted in some changes in the discriminatory laws, mostly through the Eleventh Amendment to the country code of Nepal establishing widows’ rights to property. Our organization has been able to actively promote widows as change-makers, and to demonstrate the way in which women are vital social capital and a key resource in the mainstream development process of Nepal.

To ensure the increased representation of widowed women at all decision-making levels - national, regional and international, widows' groups have undertaken the task of building the capacity of members at the local level, with the mission of providing leadership training, and education about political participation. The grassroots groups include women from all walks of life - Maoist widows, widows of Security Forces - while many are victims of both. Thus this platform provides a chance and choice for the widows to collaborate in joint efforts, in fighting for survival and improving their lives, while finding an end to the conflict that they are adversely affected by.

Widows and single women's group: Photo: Women for Human Rights

We now have a network built up within the local level agencies from Ward level, Village Development Committee level, to Districts Development Committee level, extending to Regional and National level and further to South Asian Network for Widows Empowerment in Development (SANWED).

The various Ministries and National Women’s Commission of Nepal have begun to incorporate widows' issues in their strategy and agenda for women’s empowerment.

The district level widows' groups, together with the Central Office have lobbied national and regional stakeholders, in endorsing the principles of the Widows Charter, which calls for the protection and fulfillment of the special needs of widows. As a result of our campaigning, the new constitution of Nepal now includes widows in fundamental rights. We continue to be involved in lobbying to change  discriminatory laws and policies against widows so that gender justice prevails.

The widows' movement has gained a good momentum with a very positive outlook and with strong support for the cause, yet there is still long way to go to change the stereotypes and mindsets of the people against widowhood. Changing minds is the hardest part of the challenge we continue to address.

 


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