October 14, 2008
Historically, Nepal’s legal system has been a hybrid of Hindu law and English common law. The Muluki Ain, derived from patriarchal Hindu caste law and custom, has served as a general code of civil and criminal law and procedure, applicable to all Nepalis regardless of religion or ethnicity: property, inheritance, adoption, marriage, divorce, homicide, rape, incest, and many other subjects were covered by the Muluki Ain. However, when formal law – a particular statute or the constitution – has come in conflict with the Muluki Ain, formal law generally takes precedence. As a result, in the last half-century, women’s rights have improved in Nepal, although far from what the Western world would characterized as gender equality.
Nowhere is this more evident than in women’s health care. Nepal’s maternal mortality ratio, for instance, is about one in twenty-one women. Abortion-related deaths have been estimated to be as high as 4,000 per year. Less than half (47%) of births are assisted by trained health workers or traditional birth attendants. Fewer than one in five mothers receive postnatal care within the first two days after delivery. In all of the above cases, the risk-rates rise dramatically when addressing those women living outside the urban areas; the vast majority of women still live in remote agricultural settings.
Women’s health and reproductive rights cannot be fully understood without taking into account the legal and social status of women, which still reflect patriarchal attitudes harking back to centuries-old feudal values. As a rule, marriages are still arranged by the male head of a family. Even Prime Minister Prachanda, a leading proponent of progressive ideas toward women, orchestrated the selection of his three daughters’ grooms. On the grassroots level, men make life-changing decisions; women are expected to respect the men’s verdicts. In most cases, a woman has no identity other than the identity of her father and/or her husband. A woman’s difficulty in owning property and earning an independent income, her expected role as an obedient wife, her inferior level of education, and her vulnerability to violence continue to negatively affect her ability to make decisions about her physical, mental and economic well-being.
Below are a few salient points. (The figures quoted are a few years old; some numbers
have improved in favor of women’s rights since then.)
➢ Percentage of women employed as administrative and managerial workers: 9%.
➢ Percentage of women in the agricultural work force: 45%.
➢ Literacy rate among population aged 15 and older: 24% female, 60% male.
➢ Percentage of female-headed households: 13%.
➢ Fertility rate: 4.26 births per woman
➢ Percentage of pregnant women with anemia: 65%
➢ Infant mortality rate: 71 deaths per 1000 live births
➢ Contraceptive prevalence rates among married teenage women (aged 15-19): 4.4% (modern methods), 2.2% (traditional methods).
➢ Percentage of women landowners: 6%. 81% of these women own less than on hectare of land.
➢ Property laws: Women must obtain the consent of her father and mother if she is unmarried, or of her adult son or daughter if she is divorced or widowed, to dispose of more than half of any immovable property she receives in partition.
➢ Judicial interpretation of rape: limited to vaginal penetration. If a woman is raped against her will but does not resist the sexual advances of the rapist, the act does not amount to rape. All cases of rape must be reported within 35 days from the date of the incident in order to be heard in court.
➢ Incest: Sexual relations with one’s sister or daughter are punishable with ten years’ imprisonment. However, the Muluki Ain code provides that marriages can be solemnized between near relations if such customs persist in the particular community.
➢ Domestic violence: Although crimes of murder and attempted murder may be tried, physical assault is not considered a crime for which the state can be a prosecuting party. In physical assault cases, the female victim must bring a private suit through a hired attorney; this distinction prevents the police from filing or investigating many forms of domestic violence.
➢ Sexual harassment: There is no specific law addressing sexual harassment in the workplace.
➢ Sex trafficking: Although many cases go unreported, approximately 6,000-7,000 girls and young women are trafficked annually, many of whom disappear into Indian and Gulf State brothels. 60,000 Nepalese girls under the age of 18 are known to be working as commercial sex workers in India, many against their will.
➢ Customary forms of violence: Deuki, badi, dowry related violence and witchcraft still exist in Nepal. Deuki and badi are both accepted forms of prostitution. Deuki is the practice of placing young girls in temples and offering them to the gods; when the girls grow up, they are forced to become prostitutes. Badi is the practice of an ethnic group of the same name, whereby young women are trained to become prostitutes. Allegations of being a witch have led women to suffer humiliation, severe forms of violence and even death.
Still, in the last ten years, the government has established a number of institutions and policies designed to address women’s issues. Most notably, the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, created in 1995 following the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, is the lead agency charged with the task of fulfilling Nepal’s national and international obligations on gender equality. NGOs and activists have also played an important role, particularly in fighting legal discrimination against women.
For more information about sex trafficking, read my interview with Dr Arzu Rana Deuba, one of Nepal’s most prominent women, now holding a seat in the Constituent Assembly.
Click here for Dunham's interview with Dr. Deuba
Another revealing interview on women’s issues is my interview with Ram Kumari Jhakri, who only last week was named the first female president of the ANNFSU, one of the nation’s largest student unions. "For the first time in the history of ANNFSU, we have the most inclusive central committee with 33 per cent women elected in the 121-member body," Jhakri said last week.
Click here for Dunham's interview with Ram Kumari Jhakri
Both women have demonstrated consummate skill in working through the male-dominated political process in Nepal.
But today’s interview is with a woman who, with no political motivation or power, has proven her worth as an independent woman of the New Nepal – an unsung role model for the younger female population. Her name is Gita Upreti, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) of Gorkha – the only woman to hold this position in all of the 75 districts in Nepal.
I conducted this interview in her office in Gorkha three weeks ago.
GITA UPRETI: I was born in the farming village of Kharanitar in Nuwakot District. It is a district adjoining Kathmandu. I went to primary and secondary school there. We were seven sisters and my father was a farmer. I’m the fifth daughter and we don’t have any brothers. We daughters mostly left the village, but my second oldest sister is still there taking care of the house and everything.
MD: When you were a girl were females encouraged to go to school?
GITA: No. But my father sent all of his daughters to school. He was a social worker and a kind of activist. Prior to that, there were very few girls who attended school in my village.
MD: What years are we talking about?
GITA: From 1963 to 1970, I was in primary.
MD: What was your father’s political affiliation?
GITA: Nepali Congress. He was one of the district leaders. At that time, there was no local high school, so my father sent my two oldest sisters to Kathmandu for a higher education. He was very proud of the fact, even though it was a financial and social sacrifice. There was a risk involved, sending daughters away to school. From the cultural point of view, my father took that risk by sending them to the city. By the time I was finished with primary school, a high school had been built in our village, so I attended there. Then, after getting my SLC degree [tenth grade equivalent], my father enrolled me in Padma Kanya College, in Kathmandu. Padma Kanya College is the oldest women’s college -- I think it opened in the 1950s. I studied and graduated in Humanities and Social Science with a degree in Batchelor of Arts in Economics and Culture.
MD: Is that where you learned English?
GITA: Yes. Our courses in college used a lot of English books. That helped me to improve my English.
MD: What were your aspirations after completing college?
GITA: After moving to Kathmandu, I realized that I would need to find a job so that I could support myself. And stand up for myself. The city itself motivated me. The city encouraged me to do something. I wanted to establish a personal identity. And my parents encouraged that way of thinking. My father said, “You need to do something for society and for yourself. Only then will you be recognized in society as your own person.” And my mother told me, “You are not only my daughter, but a member of society who will doing something worthwhile.” She is still alive and still encourages all my sisters and me.
MD: Your parents were very progressive for the time. They must have been criticized.
GITA: Oh, yes. For my family, in our small village, it was very hard not having a son. Because all the villagers used to say “Who’s going to take care of you [the parents] and your property when you get old? But my father always said, “I will give my property to a trust. I will not give anything to anybody. I’m not giving anybody even a single penny.”
MD: The village people thought daughters should be married, not educated?
GITA: Yes. But in truth, when the girls did get married, they would have no future at all. Also, my father always encouraged me to participate in sports. I was an athlete. In my district, I was one of the top five players. I competed in high jump, long jump and long distant running and shorter races.
MD: Did you see any of the Olympics? In America, all we saw was women’s volleyball.
GITA: Ah it was very interesting! I watched that program, you know? Really interesting. I was really happy with that. When the women competitions were shown, I was very much interested. Even the women’s swimming competitions. It was amazing.
MD: Getting back to your youth, what year did you graduate from college?
GITA: 1986. The times were rapidly changing. The paradigm was shifting and I saw a lot of that shifting. In political, cultural and economic terms, I saw a lot of changes in our society in Nepal. For the youth, politics was mostly limited to the Student Union. No violence. There was the political movement called Shatya Graha (“reveal the truth”) a non-violence movement created by Gandhi: protesting and marching, but no violence.
MD: What were they protesting?
GITA: The Panchayat System of the Shah regime. The king suppressed the Shatya Graha.
[Note: The Panchayat System was basically a one-party system, designed to serve the absolute power that King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah had usurped from the people in 1960. Under this system, the king controlled all three branches of the government – executive, legislative and judiciary – plus the military and civil service. The Panchayat system was overthrown in early 1990 through the People’s Movement, Jana Andolan.]
MD: When did you join the police?
GITA: After college. There were very few women in the police force at that time. You could count them on one hand. That was the beginning of my career.
MD: You were breaking all the rules in Nepal’s society. How were you treated?
GITA: It was very unusual for the people to see a woman in a police uniform. When we passed down the road all the guys would stare at us. They use to talk to each other and joke about having a woman in uniform. It was shocking particularly for that society to see women in uniform. It happened in Kathmandu where modern people lived. I was surprised because they were far more sophisticated than the village people.
MD: Was it the fact that you were wearing trousers?
GITA: That uniform was similar to the one I’m wearing now. It was not accepted. People wondered if we would be able to provide quality service. They doubted a woman’s abilities.
MD: Within the force, how did the men treat you?
GITA: There were two aspects of acceptance: One was within the police force and one was outside, within society. Both groups doubted our abilities.
MD: Did it remain like that as you rose up through the ranks? Were you pushed harder because you were a woman or were you treated equally by the police force?
GITA: In terms of women being given responsibilities, the police force didn’t trust our abilities. They wanted to show society that they had hired women and they could do anything, but in reality, the police force was not giving us the responsibility that would prove that we could do anything.
MD: They didn’t want to take a chance on you?
GITA: That’s right. After a long, long time I was given the opportunity to be become District Chief of Gorkha. They should have given this to me earlier. My male peers got the same promotion much earlier in their careers. The leaders are still hesitant to give women positions of higher responsibility and opportunity.
MD: How many district chiefs are women?
GITA: I’m the only one. In the 75 districts, I’m the only one.
MD: Has the situation improved now, when younger women enter the police force?
GITA: Yes. For one thing there are a lot more women coming in. But there are no special arrangements made for the needs of the women in the police force. You have to go through the same process as the men. There is no priority at all. Now, the people are talking about “inclusion”. Where is the inclusion for us? Where is the litigation, the law that talks about real inclusion for women?
MD: How did you personally break through the bias? Women in the US are running for president. Hillary Rodham Clinton came very close to winning the Democratic nomination. There’s much talk about cracking the glass ceiling in the west. You seemed to have done some glass-cracking right here.
GITA: I was always a Clinton supporter! I always watched her interviews and thought how impressive she was. When the German Chancellor election took place, I monitored the election very closely. Any event that brings women to the foreground, with real power, not only on the grass root level, but at the top…we need to bring women into the decision-making levels. If the government wants to hire more women in the police, they should develop an inclusive system based on sex, caste, religion and so on.
MD: And right now they don’t have that?
GITA: Right now we don’t have that particular system. And that should be implemented as early as possible.
MD: Do you think the new government, led by the Maoists are stepping in the right direction? Do you think they will be more inclusive?
GITA: I hope so. I hope there will be some change from the grass root level up. There has to be specific criteria, special protection and inclusion to bring more women into the police force. We have 57,000 personnel in the police force, nation-wide. Within that group there are only 2000 women in the force.
MD: Are they all in the lower ranks?
MD: What do you think about the Constituent Assembly? Are they serious about the inclusion of women?
GITA: They have to address women’s issues; otherwise there will be no change. We are talking about the new Nepal. I do think the new government is very serious about this issue.
MD: You have a son. What has it been like to have a career and try to balance having a family at the same time?
GITA: It’s very difficult. Even though you must run the office, you must also pay attention to the family, which is the most important part of life. I wanted to have additional children, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t give up the time necessary to raise additional children. I was conscious about this so I stopped at one child.
MD: What is the system in the police force for female officers who become pregnant? Do they get leave time?
GITA: We get sixty days leave during and after the birth. Not before that. Before that, you can arrange to take home leave and other leaves, if necessary. After the two months, you must be prepared to return to work. But it’s not enough time, really. And the facilities provided for the policewomen are not adequate. That is a very hard ceiling for us to break through.
We women provide quality service. We can work as a man can work. But at the same time we have other challenges. Sometimes, it’s very hard to coordinate with the men. For example, someone from an international organization called me here at my office in the Gorkha District Police Office, and he was looking for the DSP. I told him many times, “I am the DSP.” Again and again, he said, “Madam, I am looking for the DSP,” meaning, I am looking for the male voice. Finally, I said, “Sir, please be prepared. At this office, the DSP is a woman. Please keep this in mind.” A half-hour later, he called me again and he apologized saying that he thought the previous DSP, who was a male, was still running Gorkha. The whole event was funny for both him and me. Sometimes you are just automatically unacceptable in the hierarchy, if you are a woman.
The men think, “How do I deal with that woman?” [laughs]. That’s where the real problem lies. Not every time, but sometimes I can tell that a man is not looking at me as the DSP, but as a woman, and they can’t get beyond that. That’s the challenge for us women. You have to first prove that you can do a particular job and finish the task. Then they may trust you. But often you are not even given the chance to do a particular job because the men are preconditioned to doubt your abilities.
On the other hand, if a man has a position, and even if he is not performing to the standards demanded for his position, he is given the benefit of the doubt. He is trusted. If he fails in a task, they will say, “Sometimes a man makes a mistake.” If a woman makes a mistake, she is used as an example of why women should not have authority in the first place. They will say, “What do you expect? She’s a woman. I told you so.”
Patriarchal ideology is blocking women officers’ ability to go further. But it’s the same mentality everywhere. It’s the same at home, when men are looking at you. Or in the office. This is a problem throughout Nepal
MD: Another problem in Nepal, relating to women, is the sex trade: abductions of girls. Nepal has a tragic number of girls that are trafficked each year.
GITA: Yes, yes. I used to be in charge at the headquarters of the Women and Children Service Center in Kathmandu. I have lots of experience – twelve years -- working with women and children issues. It was in Kathmandu as well as outside the Kathmandu valley. I was traveling all over the country. At that time, my job was to train women police officers and work as an investigator on women’s cases and trafficking prevention. In fact, I helped found the Women and Children Service Center. It was established in 1996. Before that, I used to work in a police section that oversaw anti-trafficking. We would go from village to village, door to door, with programs that warned the locals about the dangers of trafficking and the luring of innocent girls from their homes. We were providing information for both parents and girls: How you can recognize the pimps. How the girls can be lured, then abused by the pimps. What kind of false promises the pimps will give. It was an awareness-raising campaign: We were telling parents that, even if the guys were promising marriage, don’t believe them. Those districts that were particularly poor, like Chitwan and Darding—we focused on them.: all the southern districts along the border of India.
As for actual cases of trafficking, the Women and Children Service Center helped in the investigation process. In the beginning there were four centers: Kathmandu, Lalipur, Kaski and Morang. And I headed up the office in Kathmandu. Girls came into Kathmandu from small villages, not knowing what trouble they were about to get into. And we realized that what these girls needed was a women-friendly atmosphere where they could talk about their problems.
Also we established many small units along the Indian border where women would stop young girls attempting to cross and ask them where they were going and who they were with. It was intervention, but it also helped us to identify pimps. Sometimes we worked hand in hand with other organizations like Maiti Nepal. In fact, at that time, both our center and Maiti Nepal were in the initial phases, so we were beneficial to each other.
And now we have ex-sex-workers who work at the borders – women who know what’s going on – who intervene with innocent girls and identify traffickers, so that we, the police, can arrest them. This network between the police and women’s organizations continues to grow. And we need that growth because the Nepali border is so porous. We have sectors that are controlled but we can’t possible seal off the entire border.
MD: From a judicial standpoint, what laws are in place to punish traffickers apprehended in Nepal?
GITA: Based on the severity of the crime, traffickers will be imprisoned from five to twenty years. At this time 42% of the traffickers tried in court go on to serve time in prison. The percentage is improving because of our improved ability to get women to come forward with evidence.
Women are hesitant to talk to male police. But what has happened is, with the advent of the Women and Children Center, we have women who are trained in counseling, who are sensitized and are, at the same time, well trained in investigative techniques. That is making a big difference. The victims find it much easier to speak to women police, to talk about the ugly details, what happened to them after they were abducted and mistreated. Now, violated women are coming forward and registering complaints. In front of male police, it’s too hard to talk. Men don’t understand as well how painful and traumatic the sex-worker experience really is to women, and sometimes men even suspect that it was the girl’s fault for being lured by the pimps.
MD: You said earlier that of 56,000 police officers, only 2000 are women. How many of these women are being properly trained for sex trafficking victims.
GITA: Very few. 195 women officers are trained and delegated to do this kind of work. There needs to be a lot more trained women posted to the centers. And more funds need to be made available. For example, there is no budget for printing brochures about our work. The budget covers salaries -- that’s it.
MD: What about domestic abuse in Nepal? Are the police improving their ability to address spousal abuse and rape?
GITA: The Women and Children Service Center has also worked in this area and with good results.
But when we first began working with domestic violence, people said, “What the hell are you doing?! It’s not a matter for the police. It’s not a crime!” They were so much intimidated! They regarded domestic violence as a private issue, not a social concern. What went on in a family’s house was not an affair for the police to poking their noses into.
In the beginning, very few abused women came to the center and, when they did, they were very shy and quiet, not sure what to do. They would only talk if they were taken to a separate room where no one could hear what they wanted to report. So I would tell them, “You can tell me whatever you want. There is nothing you can’t tell me about what has happened – both inside and outside. You are safe here.”
But it was hard to convince the victims at first. Again, I was fighting two kinds of resistance: resistance from within the police system itself and resistance from outside society.
Within the system, they told me that my job was to address the sex trade, rape and other matters, but not domestic violence. And I argued that domestic violence was one of the biggest problems for women in our society. And fortunately my supervisor was very supportive of my ideas. He said, “Go ahead!” I was so happy. And day by day, the number of women coming in increased. Now there are more than a thousand cases reported each year. Now women are beginning to feel that they have access to justice. We also coordinate with other organizations to support our efforts. Violence against women is not a simple problem. We have to deal in a package. These cases can’t be dealt with in isolation, with only the police involved. We need a lot of outside support: medical, moral, financial, legal support.
MD: You mention medical support. Many of the girls who have been forced into the sex industry contract AIDS. What happens to these women after they come to you?
GITA: The center does not provide any direct medical aid to these girls. They are referred to other organizations for that, including shelter. The center does the investigation, takes down the facts, identifies what specific needs the women have in regard to their present condition, and then we provide the women with the connections to the other support groups that are relevant to her condition.
MD: What about sending ex-sex-workers back to their home villages? Can’t this add to their problems?
GITA: Yes. Organizations that advocate reestablishing them with their families…in my opinion, it is not a good idea. What I’ve seen is that girls who are sent back to their villages, there is always a matter of social stigma. Villagers will point at her. She will feel unsafe. She can never really return to her home because she will only be identified as a girl who was trafficked. And the social stigma will also affect her family as well. They, too, will be stigmatized. The community can make it impossible for the girls to integrate. They can be very cruel.
I can give you one example that has taken place in this district, in Gorkha. There were cases of wives who were infected by the AIDS virus. But they were not prostitutes. Their husbands infected them. But the women were still stigmatized. And their families refused to support them. Their own relatives threw them out. You see how hard it is for victimized women to remain in their communities, once the word it out?
MD: What are the alternatives? Are you advocating that they be rehabilitated in an urban environment?
GITA: Yes, and then give them livelihood training. Give them skills so that they can provide for themselves.
MD: What about the drug issue? Have a lot of the Nepali girls become addicted to drugs through their pimps?
GITA: It’s recognized as a growing problem, you could say that.
MD: Getting back to you and your career: How hard has it been to rise through the ranks of the police force.
GITA: It’s been a really challenging job. Women in a police uniform must always stay on the right track. We are always being watched, our every move scrutinized, monitored. Even the most basic daily activities are monitored.
Sometimes, you don’t have a personal life, you know? But people often have a hard time separating the personal from the professional life. It’s so difficult.
After I was posted as DSP in Gorkha, women’s groups came to see me here in the office. They were so curious. “What does she look like? How will she treat us? ” [laughs] But later, they came to the conclusion that this was their office as well, that they could come here with their problems. They said, “She’s a woman. We can call her anytime we like. Even at night, we can call if we have a problem.” There isn’t any male police officer that they would dare to call at midnight! But I get those calls at midnight. And they are now happy.
But at the same time, I am the DSP of Gorkha, which means that I must protect all the people of the district, not just one group. And because I am a woman, I must try always to be perfect. There is so much expectation for my failure. And I can’t always be perfect. So my job is always difficult. But you’ve got to cope with the reality. Within my organization there are people who ask the people outside the organization, “How is she doing?” I am constantly monitored. No room for mistakes because you will never be excused.
Whenever you talk about a female police officer, you end up talking or guessing about her personal life. If you talk about a male police officer, you talk about his professional record. You see the difference? It’s undermining and very hard to address. When I talk to officers under me, I tell them to know and respect the difference between when we are on duty and off duty. I can’t tolerate the merging of the two. It’s not professional.
And if you are talking about the police force: don’t just promote women, give them the responsibility that goes with the promotion. That is an issue that has to be evaluated. If we are given a promotion, we expect added responsibility. Otherwise the promotion is empty.
One more thing:
We are talking about social inclusion. This is the time for the inclusion of women to be realized in the Constituent Assembly. There are more women in the Constituent Assembly than in any other previous governmental group. But my question is how much difference these women will make? My question is if these women are really representing us, or are they there just to be a showpiece. They must step forward and really make a difference on the issue of women. I will make the evaluation, for my own personal satisfaction. And I will advocate for more equal rights for women. We didn’t vote for women to have seats in the Constituent Assembly, just so we could promote their careers. We voted for them so that they would help us.