COVID, coming home, and crafting our place

LIZA PAUDEL, Daayitwa Fellow 2021

I saw it first on Instagram – post after post filled with outrage from people I follow. It was hard to understand what was going on. As I pieced together the news, I felt a succession of emotions: first confusion, then anger, finally settling into a sense of deep sadness. “New rule requiring women under 40 to take approval from family, local ward office to go abroad proposed”. I am under 40 and I live abroad, and I have lived on my own for more than 10 years. Yet, somehow, the government, my government, still only sees my father or my husband as the authority on my movement – not me. How is this still happening? How is this happening at all? The resignation and helplessness that I often felt while growing up in Nepal within the confines of the Nepali patriarchy came beckoning again. Only this time, I knew I was not entirely helpless, and that I could push back and try to craft a different place for myself and others. But, in today’s Nepal, is there a place for me as an autonomous young woman?

On paper, and on social media, depending on who you follow, the picture that emerges of Nepal is a promising one. It seems to be slowly but surely progressing towards more inclusive, liberal, and progressive values. There are more women in the labor force and in public offices, innovative policies such as menstrual leave have been adopted, and conversations on rape culture and even more difficult conversations about the legally codified “gender trinary” are increasingly happening. The youth of today, having grown up in a more globalized Nepal post-conflict, are rejecting and changing antiquated social norms. Yet, each step forward, usually barely available and accessible to elite circles within Kathmandu in the first place, seems to be followed by an avalanche of backlash – seemingly unceasing arguments about women’s “place”, their purity, their bodies, often tied to everything from hamro sanskaar to jingoism. 

The glaring omission of citizenship through mothers aside, the government and the legal regime have for their part tried to bridge some of this gap. A host of new laws protecting civil and women’s rights have been passed, from those combating sexual harassment and gender based violence to workplace discrimination. And yet. 

So, where do we keep falling short?  Where is our government missing the mark in protecting women and gender minorities? Is it a question of increasing awareness of existing laws and programs that support women’s empowerment, or expanding access, or creating new and different ones? Or is it the administration and implementation of said laws and programs? Are our efforts misaligned with the needs of Nepali women, or are our barometers of progress faulty? Or is it just good old patriarchal culture? How about all of the above? These are the questions that I hope to explore during my research with the Ministry of Women, Children, and Senior Citizens (MoWCSC) over the next six months. Parts of them have more straightforward answers than others, and it is far from a new or isolated pursuit. Advocates for women’s rights in Nepal and other stakeholders in civil society have been working tirelessly to figure them out and push for solutions. Victims and survivors of domestic violence, law enforcement personnel, community-based organizations, aama samuhas, and any Nepali woman for that matter, could provide insight. As I continue my research, I hope to find my place in these existing efforts, and learn why even perfectly well-intentioned laws, policies, programs, and other governmental efforts, as they trickle down to who they are serving, do not materialize as planned. 

Coming at the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty, fear, and grief that has surrounded our lives over the past year, these questions have taken on a different significance. Domestic violence incidents rose dramatically during the lockdown as an insidious and invisible pandemic of its own, and informal workers and day laborers, many of whom are women, were affected far disproportionately by lockdown and prohibitive measures. As many others have noted, this moment of despair and desperation can also be pivotal in the momentum it can generate for change. Multiple lockdowns have made lives unrecognizable, and frustrations are high after a year that tested everyone’s survival, with the already marginalized suffering the worst. Today, with more thanalmost 750,000 cases and nearly 10,6000 dead, the future still looks uncertain. COVID-19 has thus rendered acutely visible the sheer scale of devastation that follows an often-absent government – from national and communal to individual levels. 

With the failings of our public and social policies laid bare during the pandemic, the need for equitable and evidence-based policymaking is more critical than ever as we chart our unsteady way out of it. As I am learning in the fellowship, such an ecosystem is still materializing in Nepal and its nascent contours have been shifting with the transition to federalism. However, the work itself is not new. While thoughtful brainstorming of potential policies and the monitoring and evaluation of their implementation might not have always been structured or called “policy research” as such, it has existed informally in the cubicles of sachibs and upa sachibs’ offices, and convenings and conversations with civil servants, political and community leaders, and civil society. 

As the fellowship has begun, I have been excited to learn about the public administration of our federal, provincial, and local governments; at what level and how representative and innovative ideas and policies are formed, reformed, and assessed; who gets to participate and who listens; and once passed, how policies and laws are administered and implemented – especially in the new federalist system that is still taking shape. It is a strange experience to see your government come to life through dry administrative provisions and the specifications of the decentralization of power. The extent of how little I know has been overwhelming and humbling. As the nebulous idea of “government” has begun to take the shape of real people and the bureaucracy they embody, it also suddenly seems shockingly apparent – a structure with some foundations robust and others wobbly, and yet others being held together by duct tape. 

I expect that the next few months will test my patience and what I think I know. It already has been and will be difficult to get used to an overly hierarchical system whose quirks, unhurriedness, and formalness I do not always have an appreciation or the patience for; and yet, words like sahakarya and greetings ending in jyu are already rolling off the tongue easier. Supported by Daayitwa mentors and advisors who believe in the same vision of an equitable society, more youth involvement in government, and evidence-based policymaking in Nepal, I am excited about the challenge and the learning opportunity ahead of where the “rubber” of my public policy and international development academic training meets the pot-holed “road” of Nepali policymaking. 

Graduating from my Master’s in Public Affairs program in the US during this time of upheaval, I knew it was time to return home. As I get ready to enter the hallowed halls of Singha Durbar, I remain acutely aware of the divide between the youth and the government, and how the need to bridge it has never been higher. The same goes for the gap my research aims to study – between our society’s claimed progressive ideals and aspirations for equality and the lived experiences of women and gender minorities. Does this new federal future of Nepal have a place for youth like us? We shall find out, but while we wait – or better yet – we can try to craft it ourselves. 

Ms. Paudel is a Daayitwa Nepal Public Policy Fellow 2021

For An Enterprising Nepal