On International Women's Day I will be celebrating the many women I have met in Nepal who are challenging inequality by fighting for their rights. I am volunteering with international development charity VSO to help women from poor and isolated communities own the land they work on.
I work with an organisation which is fighting for agrarian reform, women's empowerment and better economic opportunities. The Community Self-Reliance Centre (CSRC) represents over 200,000 Nepalese landless people and tenant farmers, many of them women, who have farmed their lands for generations but still have to hand over a portion of what they grow to powerful elites that own their plots. This is because they don't have the certification giving them a legal right over the land they use to support themselves.
Despite providing much of the agricultural labour force, only 10.83% of women own land. They are often single-handedly responsible for caring for children while the men in their families go to earn money abroad due to a lack of opportunities in Nepal. Many women see land ownership as a key tool by which they can gain stability and have a real say in decision-making. As advocated for by CSRC, in 2010 the Nepal Government made it possible for women to receive joint land ownership certificates, which is helping to increase land rights for women, but progress is slow.
Achieving gender equality in Nepal will require a shift in the power structure of the country, and it will not be easy. The government voices support for land reform, but implementation of this commitment is a gigantic task. CSRC is organising sit-ins and advocacy work in order to convince elites that providing land, even for subsistence farming, is the best way to avert social unrest.
I recently visited one of CSRC's 2,600 Village Land Rights Forums (VLRFs) which comprise the land rights movement throughout Nepal. I met Shreelaxmi and her colleague Omkala, two women who are leading the fight for farmers in Palpa District. They are very committed to the cause, both working long hours and even resorting to sleeping at their office when they can't come home to their families. CSRC's focus on involving women in the land rights issue has produced many strong female activists who are determined to help the landless in Nepal.
Female activists leading the fight for land rights in Nepal: Shreelaxmi addressing one of the Village Land Rights Forums (VLRFs)
Shreelaxmi and Omkala are unmarried, which is somewhat unusual for women of their age in Nepal. They are also unusual in that they are grappling with an issue where men have traditionally made the key decisions. Shreelaxmi, Omkala and others like them in the land rights movement are challenging patriarchal assumptions and the idea that women should be treated as property. Through the VLRFs, women are able to express themselves and draw attention to the issues directly impacting them and their families, especially young girls.
Grassroots movements like these do promote gender equality, but they must be matched by international pressure on states to do more to ensure women have influence over their lives and in their communities. Discussions around the framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals will intensify this year, and VSO is campaigning for a strengthened stand-alone goal on women's empowerment to solidify international resolve on the issue. This should include targets on female representation, which will strengthen the presence of women in decision-making. Just as important are measures that account for women's experience of discrimination, which reaches out to grassroots movements like the land rights movement in Nepal, and includes them in reporting on the progress of women's equality.