International Policy/United Nations

To See Why CEDAW Matters, Look at Nepal

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nepal is seeing a new wave of political turmoil this week, but Jael Silliman says the country also offers a case study of the stabilizing benefits of CEDAW, the U.N. women's rights treaty that turned 30 this month.

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Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

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Women's rights campaign in Kathmandu, November, 2009.

Women's rights groups have mobilized to continue to apply CEDAW as a legal tool to advance women's rights.

But they are hobbled by political volatility.

Though the Communist party won the most votes in the 2008 elections, Prachanda, the prime minister resigned this past May when he failed in his attempt to fire the chief of the army.

Now, Maoists seeking to regain governmental control routinely block parliamentary processes by boycotting votes. They have also taken their battle for political power to the streets and call for strikes against the current government's policies.

Deadline in Doubt

With all this going on, the nation-building process that the constitutional drafting process represents is still inching forward, with meetings and reviews going ahead.

Eight months ago, on a visit to Nepal to meet with women's rights activists and organizations, I found a sense of widespread excitement and optimism about Nepal's democratic future.

On a recent trip, however, I found signs of frustration and disillusionment among activists as well as people I spoke to on the street. They were fed up with prolonged power and fuel shortages that crippled much of Nepal over the last year.

But proclaiming democracy is not a magic formula for realizing democracy.

Nor is it a magic formula for women's expanded rights.

Customary practices--such as confining menstruating women and women who have just given birth, considered unclean--continue even though the Supreme Court outlawed extreme confinement three years ago.

The Supreme Court has also ordered the government to investigate whether the practice of worshipping a virgin girl--Kumari worship--violates the rights of the girl who is selected as a Kumari when she is between 4 and 7 years old. She lives apart from her family and serves in this religious capacity till her first menstruation.

But even the Maoists bow to public sentiment and appointed a Kumari, part of the monarchic tradition.

Women's rights activists note that in this time of political turmoil it would be hard to banish this age-old tradition, which provides a sense of comfort and continuity.

However, women's rights activists like Sapna Malla Pradhan are promoting the Kumaris' rights to education and counseling and are advocating for increasing their small pension to compensate them for the enormous toll this tradition takes on their lives.

The new constitution, meanwhile, is rising in the background, promising to buttress the country's social stability and expanded human rights.

And for that, the women's rights activists who have become regional experts in applying CEDAW to advance gender equality get a great deal of the credit.

Jael Silliman, based in Kolkata, India, is a feminist activist, scholar and the author of several books on feminist topics.



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