The new constitution offers a valuable opportunity to ensure that women and girls have the same prospects in life as their male counterparts
March is when the global community recognizes the contributions and accomplishments of women and girls around the world. Together, on March 8th, we celebrated International Women’s Day and advocated for greater empowerment of women and girls. As we commemorate 70 years of progress and partnership between the United States and Nepal, we also reflect on the achievements we made together to advance equal rights and opportunities for women and girls in Nepal.
During this partnership, the quality of life has improved significantly for women and girls. When we established bilateral ties in 1947, the legal marriage age for Nepali girls was five years. In 1960, the average life expectancy was just 35 years, and in 1980, the literacy rate for women stood at just 9 percent. Today, the legal marriage age for Nepali girls is 20, the average Nepali lives to be 70, and 65 percent of women are literate. Today, maternal deaths have dropped by 75 percent since 1990, helping Nepal achieve this Millennium Development Goal, and more than 80 percent women are active in the workforce—putting Nepal’s female labor force participation rate far above other countries in the region, including India (27 percent), Bangladesh (58 percent), and even China (64 percent).
However, there is still much more work to be done if we are to meet the commitment of both our countries to create a brighter future for women and girls and, by meeting this commitment, support a development boon for Nepal. Women and girls still face economic, legal, cultural and social barriers that prevent opportunities to learn, to participate in the political process, and to access healthcare and other essential services. Dissolving these impediments can enable women and girls to lead more fruitful lives and to more fully contribute to their own development, as well as to the development of their families and communities.
Challenges of inequality are not unique to Nepal. In the United States, despite significant progress over the past century, women still face inequality in many aspects of life. While American women are more likely to graduate from college compared to their male peers, women still earn an average of 20 percent less than men for doing the same job. And no matter where they live, women face cultural stereotypes beginning at a young age that value them largely for their physical appearance and their ability to fulfill traditional roles of caretakers and homemakers. Still, we have seen the positive social and economic impacts of advancing women’s rights in the United States and in other countries around the world, and I am confident Nepal can meet, or even surpass, these accomplishments.
If Nepal is going to meet its full social and economic potential, it is critical that women and men are equally economically empowered. According to the International Monetary Fund, barriers to women’s participation in the labor force worldwide result in GDP losses of nearly 30 percent. While 80 percent of Nepali women are active in the workforce, the overwhelming majority are focused in informal sectors like agriculture, domestic work or manual labor. Too many women are left out of the formal economy. Among skilled, middle income-level jobs, there is a substantial gap between men and women, with 78 percent of males participating in the workforce across this economic bracket, compared to just 48 percent of women. This disparity puts females at a disadvantage and ultimately hurts the country. Equipping Nepali women with real skills will allow them to make more meaningful contributions and help power economic growth.
Education is also a key factor in expanding Nepal’s economy. Among developing countries, research shows that with each additional year of secondary schooling a girl receives, her wages in later life can increase by up to 25 percent. Education also has a ripple effect that positively influences the health outcomes of women and their families. However, impediments such as traditional gender norms and early marriage put girls at a disadvantage. Recent studies show that married girls in Nepal are 14 times more likely to be out of school compared to their unmarried peers.
Nepal’s new constitution declares that Nepal is an “inclusive” state that guarantees equality for all its citizens, including women. While gaps remain in implementation, including disparities between men and women in citizenship provisions, the constitution is an important step in Nepal’s development and offers a valuable opportunity to ensure that women and girls have the same prospects for success in life as their male counterparts.
However, good laws alone are not enough. The responsibility for breaking down barriers, creating equitable opportunities, and empowering women is one that every individual must embrace fully if we are to fulfill the constitutional promise of equality in Nepal. While we typically view policies and laws as the major obstacles to gender equality, many barriers are also deeply entrenched at institutional, family and community levels. As laws improve, these informal barriers also need to be overcome. And this means changing attitudes, expectations and practices.
I have seen firsthand the impact of “people-to-people” strategies that empower women from the ground up. The US government is partnering with local Nepali organizations to support social action groups in which citizens—both men and women—engage leaders from local government and civil society to advocate for women’s rights. These forums provide women a chance to voice their opinions and influence decision-making to ensure that public services, including support for earthquake response, are inclusive and meet the needs of themselves and their families. In turn, local leaders better understand women’s issues, and can realize the incentives for resolving inequities and influencing change within their communities.
Community-based approaches can also expand women’s access to financial and economic opportunities. For example, we have been working with Nepal to provide business literacy, financial management, and job-skills training to women across 20 districts. Participants also receive small loans to invest in their own business ventures. Over the past five years, more than 45,000 women have successfully completed this program, and are now better equipped to earn more money and make contributions to the formal economy.
The US Embassy also supports women working to break down barriers by nominating them for the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), so that they can expand their skills and professional networks. CNN Super Hero Pushpa Basnet used what she learned about American volunteerism to improve her Early Childhood Development Center which works with the children of incarcerated parents. According to Supreme Court Justice Sapana Pradhan Malla, her 2005 IVLP on “Women and Economic Development” allowed her the unique opportunity to closely examine the American political system, providing lessons on how democracy works. Already a pioneer on women’s rights in Nepal, Justice Malla drew from this experience in her role as a Constituent Assembly member, where she helped draft Nepal’s constitution, and where she continues to use these insights as she advocates for a constitution that will build an inclusive and prosperous Nepal.
Community advocacy strategies can help overcome obstacles and increase the chances for tens of thousands of girls to reap the economic benefits for themselves and their families that come with education. Each one of us must play a role in helping parents and family members understand the value of education and in encouraging their daughters, granddaughters, nieces and sisters to go to school, and to stay in school.
Change does not happen overnight, but we cannot afford to wait if we wish to empower women and girls. We must act now, through collaborative and collective efforts. Empowering women and girls begins at the family and community level, and requires the support of fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and brothers standing side-by-side with their daughters, mothers, grandmothers, and sisters.
I call on each and every one reading this article to pledge to make a positive change in our families and our communities to reshape individual and collective attitudes and behaviors towards women and girls. Let us stand together to make Nepal a place where all women, as well as all men and all boys, have equal opportunities. So, be bold. Speak out against discrimination. Share information and be an advocate for the rights of women and girls in your workplaces, your schools and your homes. Only together can we create an environment in which everyone is free to choose their own path and to chase their own dream, whether they dream of becoming a mother or a teacher, a doctor or a professor, a housewife or a successful business owner… or even an ambassador.
What will you do today to empower the women and girls in your life?