By Danielle Shapiro
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Nepali widows and their advocates are pushing back at a government proposal to pay engaged couples for a widow's remarriage. Not only is the law like a new form of dowry, they say, many widows feel better off staying single and earning their own incomes.
KATHMANDU, Nepal (WOMENSENEWS)--The government has proposed helping widows here by paying engaged couples about $670 when they marry and the wife is a widow.
But Women for Human Rights, single women group, a leading local advocacy organization for widows based in Kathmandu, isn't pleased.
Last summer, shortly after the government announced the idea, the group staged a protest that drew about 1,500 participants to sound off against the government's proposal.
Rajin Rayamajhi, a lawyer with Women for Human Rights, likened the proposal to "buying and selling a woman."
Many single women, as widows here prefer to be called, are illiterate and only 2 percent have higher education. Rayamajhi said the proposal would be difficult for many to understand. This makes them vulnerable to men who would marry them for the money and then leave, taking all the funds.
She also slammed the payments for increasing the risk of violence and trafficking once widows were again under the control of a husband. Critics further say that the proposed legislation encourages a different kind of dowry, though the Nepali government has been trying to eliminate that system, and advances the notion that a woman's security and empowerment is dependent on marriage and men.
Women for Human Rights filed a case with the Supreme Court in October against the Nepali government, the prime minister and the finance minister to compel their withdrawal of the policy. In November, the court ordered the government to demonstrate why the legislation should not be withdrawn.
Lily Thapa, 49, the founder and executive director of Women for Human Rights, stressed that independence for widows is their first priority. Her organization has won several cases that secure citizenship and property rights for single women, including one in the Supreme Court in early 2009 that allowed widows to inherit from their deceased spouses, even if they remarry.
"We encourage very young widows to get remarried," Thapa said, "but before that we encourage her to be independent on her own."
While waiting for the government's response, Thapa has met with policymakers and continues to lobby them to use the funds for skills training, job placements, health care for widows and free education for their children instead.
Her group also hopes to get the government to give the poorest widows monthly allowances regardless of age. As the law currently stands, only widows over the age of 60 get just under $7 each month.
When a woman's husband dies, in many parts of Nepal the loss she suffers is much more than just a spouse.
Single women are not to wear jewelry or bright colors, especially red; they are not to eat meat or seasoned food; not allowed to participate in celebrations; and often not even allowed to touch other people. Their increased dependency on living relatives makes them more vulnerable to, and often the victims of, verbal, physical and sexual abuse and frequently their property and inheritance rights are violated. The practice of Sati, where women were ritually burned on their husband's funeral pyres, was outlawed a century ago.
"One minute you have everything and the next it's gone," said Thapa, whose own husband died 20 years ago while serving as a physician with the United Nations in the first Iraq War. She was left with three sons aged 4, 9 and 10.
Almost immediately her relatives forcibly removed her treasured diamond nose ring, which she'd worn since receiving it at 14 from her parents as a gift for completing high school. She was made to wear colorless clothing and at her brother's wedding she was not allowed to help with the preparations. As a widow, she was considered bad luck.
Today Thapa again wears a nose ring, bracelets and brightly-colored clothes. She hasn't remarried and said she doesn't want to. She is not alone.
In the 15 years since Women for Human Rights began, the group has established 225 single women's groups across 52 of Nepal's 75 districts. In all, it has organized about 44,000 widows. Thapa said that 99 percent of the single women she has met in that time would prefer not to remarry.
Close to 70 percent of widows in Nepal are between 20 to 35 and have, on average, three to four children. Thapa said they worry primarily about their children and whether a second husband would properly care for them. Often, she said, stepchildren are not treated well or rejected by second spouses. Second marriages are also considered taboo, so even if a woman did want to remarry she would still encounter stigma for her choice.
"I don't have an interest," Bhagawati Satyal, 28, said of remarriage last month through a translator. Her husband died accidentally in 1999 after falling from the roof of a hotel where he worked in Kathmandu. "If I remarry, I'll have to again be dependent on my husband. Now I am independent."
Satyal now works with Women for Human Rights in the Single Women Entrepreneur Group preparing catered lunches for sale. She said she earns enough to support herself and her 10-year-old daughter, as well as to help her in-laws and their small farm.
The elderly couple, who Satyal said stigmatized her after her husband's death, have since come to live with her instead of their remaining son because she can better provide for them.
Dale Davis, Nepal project director for the Centre for Development and Population Activities, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to improve the lives of women and girls in the developing world, said that after marriage traditionally Nepali women move into their husband's homes, becoming part of his family.
In a country where arranged marriages are still the norm, it is not customary to secure another marriage if a woman's husband dies, Davis said.
She reiterated Thapa's observation that for many single women the practical challenges of caring for children and insuring their livelihoods--not remarriage--are paramount concerns, especially for less affluent or poorly educated village women.
"Now that they have lost their breadwinner," she said in a telephone interview, "survival is the most important issue."
Satyal said she hoped a government proposal to assist widows would focus more on their children.
"I thought they would bring something beneficial to my children," she said. "I felt the policy commodified single women and tagged them with 50,000 rupees. Is my price only 50,000 rupees?"
Renu Sharma, president and founder of the Kathmandu-based Women's Foundation of Nepal, a nonprofit advocacy group formed in 1988, said that with job opportunities single women will have better chances of rebuilding their lives and overcoming cultural discrimination. Her organization currently houses 20 single women in its shelter for victims of violence.
"If women are skillful, can get a job and be independent, then society will accept her," Sharma said in a recent telephone interview.
For some women, however, remarriage is beside the point. What matters more is earning broad social recognition that even as single women they are equal, capable and free to live their lives as they wish.
"Marriage is not the only thing," said Rekha Subedi, 31, another member of the Single Women Entrepreneur Group. "Even by living single we can do something by ourselves.
Danielle Shapiro is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
Women for Human Rights, single women group
The Women's Foundation of Nepal
Centre for Development and Population Activities