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

By Li Onesto

Revolutionary Worker #1094, March 11, 2001, posted at

"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."

Woman 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.

Sunsara, revolutionary woman
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.

Feudalism and Inequality

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 Choose

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.

From 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."

Dr. Renu Rajbhandari,
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%.

The Selling 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.

Story 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 People's War

"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.' "

Rachana, 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 army."

Targeted by the Government

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 community.

People's Power, Women's Power

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 cloth.

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 Revolutionary Worker Online
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