Almost half of Nepali women of reproductive age use contraceptive measures. Condoms, morning-after pills, and intrauterine devices (IUD) are a commonality for contemporary Nepalis. Having these choices and access to contraceptives is crucial for reproductive healthcare and empowerment. This allows for ease of family planning as well as sexual liberation. It is great that Nepal has reached many milestones with regard to reproductive health, for example meeting MDGs and SDGs. However, it is to be noted that women bear the brunt of using contraceptives over men.
In 2019, 47 percent of Nepali women aged 15 to 49 reportedly used permanent or temporary contraceptives. These contraceptive methods commonly included female sterilization, birth control pills, IUDs, injectables, implants, and female condoms for women while men used condoms or underwent sterilization. Most of these contraceptives – bar condoms – are either injected or ingested, making them invasive procedures. According to a 2016 study, 28 percent of Nepali women relied on sterilization, 17 percent on injectables, nine percent on birth control pills, six percent on implants, and three percent on IUDs. In contrast, only ten percent of men had undergone sterilization. As per this data, women largely endure invasive procedures over men. Such temporary contraceptives for women largely affect their quality of life due to the side effects. On the other hand, for men, there are no temporary birth control measures aside from condoms in the market.
Women often report mood changes, weight gain, nausea, migraines, thinning hair, and irregular periods as a few of the side effects of contraceptives. Studies have also concluded that hormonal contraceptives could lead to severe conditions like depression, anxiety, and fatigue. Dr. Heera Tuladhar, head of gynecology and obstetrics at KIST Teaching Hospital, Kathmandu says that these side effects depend on the age and pre-existing conditions of the individuals. For instance, older women tend to experience more side effects. Similarly, while less than ten percent of women may be severely affected by hormonal contraceptives, progestin-only pills like Depo-Provera may lead to bleeding problems. Estrogen and progestin-based contraceptives like pills may lead to heart problems. As further mentioned by Dr. Tuladhar, only a small portion of women may experience severe reactions. Nonetheless, the minor side effects also impact the quality of life of many users and hence should not be ignored. Ironically, there have been many studies speculating whether the negative effects of women’s contraceptives are placebo or not. This is frustrating because not only do women overwhelmingly use contraceptives that intrude on their bodies, but their concerns are also brushed off and understudied by academics. Moreover, holistic research on the physical, mental, and sexual well-being of contraceptive users is acutely lacking. Sex is viewed as a purely biological process instead of a recreational one that intertwines with one’s social or familiar life. So, the sexual functioning or libido and the emotional state and burden of contraceptive-using women should be studied beyond medical side effects.
The emotional aspect in particular is also gravely undermined. Despite the ubiquity of contraceptives, it is still taboo to speak about them openly. This puts a mental burden on women, especially unmarried ones. There are many instances of gynecologists slut-shaming unmarried women for their sexual choices. It can hence be difficult for women to speak about their experiences with their peers and even medical professionals, isolating them from the support they might need.
Moving forward, Dr. Tuladhar hopes that newer contraceptives will have low doses and high efficacy. On the other hand, she says that healthcare providers should create a safe space for contraceptive users to express their discomfort. They should also not discriminate against unmarried women and prioritize the needs of the patients instead. In addendum, it is only proper to mention that contraceptives still have not saturated their reach in certain parts of Nepal. That being said, the ones who do have access to contraceptives should receive the care that they deserve. So perhaps it is high time we reflect on the physical and emotional impact it has on women, and the way forward in research and in society to enhance the experience of contraceptive users.
This blog is a part of NIPoRe’s blog series on Women’s History Month 2023
In Nepal, the role of women in the economy has undergone a significant transformation in the past four decades. Census data from different years shows that the participation of women in the labor force has increased and the gender gap in labor force participation has decreased.
According to the most recent census of 2021, 72 percent of men over the age of ten are economically active, which means that they were either employed or seeking employment. The figure, on the other hand, stands at 60.4 percent for women. While the gender gap in economic activity is persistent, results from the previous censuses show that the economic participation of women has undergone a significant increase over time. Between 1971 and 2021, the percentage of the female population over the age of ten who are economically active has increased from 29.2 to 60.4 percent.
One of the major reasons for the increase in women’s economic activity in Nepal is education. Over the years, there has been a significant improvement in women’s education in the country. In 1981, only 9.15 percent of Nepali women were literate, which increased to 34.8 percent in 2001 and further to 48.8 percent in 2011. It now stands at 69.4 percent in 2021. The increase in literacy rates has resulted in more women joining the labor force.
Another reason for the increase in women’s economic activity is the growth of the service sector in Nepal. According to the 2021 Census, the service sector has become the second largest employer for females in the country with approximately 309,944 females employed following agriculture, forestry & fishery. The service sector includes jobs in fields such as hospitality, tourism, healthcare, education, and information technology. There has hence been the creation of additional employment opportunities across varying skills making them more accessible to women.
There is still a big difference between men and women when it comes to jobs. Only 24.5 percent of employers are female, out of the total employees 36.2 percent of them were females. Females make up less than one-third of government jobs. But in financial corporations, around 44.9 percent of the workers are female. Of those that participated in household work as an economic activity, 51.0 percent were females.
The census has also considered work that is not typically considered economic activities. Female involvement is found to be significantly higher in such activities. For instance, of the population involved in family care, 77.4 percent were females. Likewise, 87.4 percent of females who were not economically active during the 12 months preceding the survey, cited household chores as the main reason.
Despite the increase in women’s economic activity, there are still significant barriers to their participation in the labor force. One of the primary barriers is social norms and cultural expectations. Women in Nepal are still expected to prioritise their household responsibilities and care work over their professional pursuits. This expectation often makes it challenging for women to pursue their careers.
Furthermore, there are still significant barriers to women’s education in Nepal, particularly in rural areas. They are often expected to drop out of school early to help with household chores, and there are inadequate resources to support their education. Out of total “female students” graduates that completed graduation level or equivalent only 41.4 percent were “from rural municipalities, whereas 29.8 percent of females reported having completed postgraduate or equivalent from the rural municipalities.
In conclusion, the census data from the past four decades indicates that women’s economic activity in Nepal has increased significantly. However, the gender gap in labor force participation continues to persist. To achieve gender equality in the workforce, it is crucial to address the barriers to women’s education and employment, including social norms and cultural expectations. Empowering women through education and skills development can result in significant improvements in women’s economic participation and their contribution to the country’s economic growth.
This blog is a part of NIPoRe’s blog series on Women’s History Month 2023
Despite the remarkable achievements that women have achieved in various fields, women are persistently portrayed as objects, subordinates, or persons who are reliant on others in the Nepali mass media, both in fiction (movies, TV programs, music videos, and advertising) and non-fiction (newspaper, interviews). Such portrayals of women not only downplay women’s overall achievements but also reinforce gender stereotypes and further perpetuate gender inequality in Nepali society.
The commercial market of advertising, music videos, songs, and films in Nepal continue to portray women in conventional gender roles and as mere objects, despite the massive emphasis on women’s empowerment. Women are frequently used as props and shown in sexually suggestive poses to sell products for men (ads for deodorants, and undergarments) or are primarily featured in ads for household products. On reviewing every ad for cooking oils made in Nepal, it is found that ads of nearly all cooking oil brands in Nepal feature women, with only a few ads featuring men, and that too only to demonstrate the impact of cooking oil on having a strong heart, implying that strength is associated with men. Recently, a commercial for Siddha Baba Cooking Oil went popular on social media for being innovative and promoting the message of not wasting food. While the ad presents a positive social message, it also subtly reinforces the idea that cooking is women’s responsibility, regardless of their social and economic status.
Similarly, Nepali films often depict women as dependent, subservient, frail, helpless characters that need assistance or lack autonomy, housewives, and mother figures, among other circumscribed roles. The feminist lens applied to review twenty Nepali films between 2017 and 2021, in a study undertaken by Gauthali Entertainment Private Limited in collaboration with Kathmandu University, revealed that the portrayal of women in these films was misogynistic and that they normalized stalking in addition to depicting women in traditional roles. Furthermore, the cheerful, melodic, and funk-influenced item songs in movies and music videos depict women as objects of desire, with their bodies displayed in a manner that appeals to the male gaze. This is especially apparent in dance scenes, in which women are shown dancing provocatively in front of amorous males. Close-up shots and camera angles that emphasize sensitive body parts and revealing outfits accentuate the negative effect of such a depiction.
Similarly, the coverage of women’s concerns in nonfiction media such as news and interviews is equally concerning and leads to the objectification of women. Women are often evaluated based on their physical appearance rather than their accomplishments or ability. When Sobita Gautam was recently elected to the House of Representatives, her physique was featured in news titles to highlight her achievements. After receiving criticism on Twitter, the publication eventually changed its title. In addition, women’s ideas and perspectives on important topics such as politics are often underrepresented, which fosters the notion that their viewpoints are not important on such issues. I examined the February 2023 Politics sections of two leading English-language daily published in Kathmandu, one private and one public. I found a startling discrepancy. The private media mentioned or quoted just 10 women politicians, party leaders, and political analysts in comparison to 143 men counterparts, and the public media mentioned or quoted 11 women in comparison to 94 men. This disparity underlines the severity of the issue and the necessity for a transformation in the media’s portrayal of women.
Persistence of such depictions in media we consume on a regular basis without any scrutiny enhances the likelihood of emulation and diminishes the significance of gender, sexuality, and instances of abuse as what we see, hear, or read in the media sub-consciously shapes our attitudes, and attitudes shape our behavior. Hence, it is essential that we recognize the impact the media has on molding our opinions. Since they have the ability and obligation to mold society’s perception of gender, the media must make deliberate attempts to combat these detrimental depictions of women. It is essential that the media presents women as multifaceted, multidimensional beings with multiple roles, experiences, and skills, ranging from those who work outside the house to those who are homemakers, as opposed to restricting them to conventional gender stereotypes and objectification.
This blog is a part of NIPoRe’s blog series on Women’s History Month 2023
The political representation of women in Nepal has improved markedly since the overthrow of the monarchy and the implementation of a federal system. Legal provisions implemented by the Government of Nepal can be largely attributed to this increase in women’s political representation. Article 84 of the Constitution of Nepal states that at least one-third of the total women elected in the federal parliament need to be women. In terms of the local level, Section 17(4) of the Local Level Election Act 2017 states that a political party must field a woman in either the mayor/ chairperson or deputy mayor/ vice-chairperson position. It is also legally mandatory to appoint a female ward member and a Dalit female ward member at the ward level. While all these provisions have ensured the political participation and representation of women, the past two elections have shown that there is still work needed to be done with regard to the proper implementation of these provisions so that meaningful political participation of women can be ascertained.
In the 2017 local-level elections, 40.95 percent of the total elected representatives were women. There was a slight improvement in 2022 with women being 41.21 percent of the total elected representatives. However, in both elections, the target set to achieve 50 percent representation of women was not met. In addition, to fulfill the legal provisions political parties ended up fielding a large number of women as candidates for Deputy positions in 2017. In contrast, in 2022, due to the political parties forming coalitions, only one candidate was fielded by one political party in mayor/ chief and deputy positions which could be either of the genders. Because of this, the tickets went largely to male candidates while drastically decreasing the number of female candidates. The nominations reflect this – while 3593 women were nominated as deputy chiefs in 2017, 3077 women were nominated as deputy chiefs in 2022 (Data from Election Commission). Furthermore, while it is mandatory for all ward levels to have one Dalit women member, 176 units and 123 units in 2017 and in 2022, respectively, did not field Dalit women candidates.
These incidents show that creating legal provisions is not enough to ensure the participation of women, rather, constant supervision is needed to ensure the correct implementation of the legal provisions. Although the Election Commission has been active in responding to the concerns raised regarding women’s participation in the electoral system, it has still been one step behind with its decisions coming after loopholes have been utilised by the parties. Women’s rights activists and legal experts are the ones who have been raising the alarm on this trend of political parties utilising legal loopholes to shaft women in their nomination and offered positions. Few female cadres and leaders have also raised their voices against their party’s reluctance to give candidacies to women.
In 2017, the political parties were criticised for giving women candidacies in only deputy/vice-chairperson positions. In 2022, parties were again criticised for using coalitions to give candidacy only to male candidates. In the case of Dalit women representatives, a major criticism remains that parties only look for Dalit women to field as candidates during election time.
While the public and activists can draw the attention of political parties to the task, the onus remains on political parties to encourage the political participation of women from grassroot level and to fulfill and even exceed the provisions as guaranteed by the constitution. Unless the political parties take lead on this issue, women’s political participation and representation will always be on the margins.
This blog is a part of NIPoRe’s blog series on Women’s History Month 2023
Historically, women’s participation in the tech sector has been remarkably low due to the patriarchal classification of jobs. As a consequence, it led societies to believe that men automatically belong to the fields such as IT while leaving a very narrow space for women. This has caused only a few women to study and subsequently enter the tech sector.
Nevertheless, this is changing, as it rightly should. According to Deloitte Global, the tech industry is making steady progress in shrinking its gender gap. In 2019, overall female representation in large global technology firms was 30.8 percent. Deloitte estimated that women’s share in the overall global tech workforce increased by 6.9 percent from 2019 to 2022. Public commitments by large tech companies to improve gender diversity also aided this increase. Intel, for example, aims to double the number of women and underrepresented minorities in senior leadership roles by 2030. Similarly, HP pledged to reach 50 percent gender equality in roles at the director level and above by 2030.
In Nepal, we see a similar upsurge. According to Nepal’s 2011 census, only 1,117 females studied computing while the number increased to 11,078 in 2021. This shows a monumental increase of about 892 percent in female students in the tech sector during the ten-year period. It also beats the overall increase in students studying computing which amounts to more than 668 percent which is significant by itself as well.
Conversations with women professionals working in Nepal’s tech sector show that one major reason for this uptick is that IT has set itself as an industry better suited for women workers. However, our societal structure has for long had restrictions for women to work (especially after marriage), restricts economic freedom, deems late office working hours as unsafe, treats periods as taboo, considers men as primary breadwinners, and puts less value on women workers. The IT sector provides a workaround for many of these societal issues. Asmita Bajracharya, Product Manager at Innovate Tech says that work in the IT sector can usually be done from home and has flexible work timings, project-based pay, space for freelance work, and a relatively higher pay scale compared to other industries. All these, therefore, she believes make the sector one of the best for working women in Nepal.
However, the IT sector is also rife with issues depending on which company you analyse or whom you talk to. IT startups are particularly problematic while established companies usually have stringent policies in place. However, we see such discrimination usually persist in smaller and newer companies even within the IT sector. Additionally, smaller companies generally have issues such as longer working hours, and no set leave policies. Nepal’s Labour Act 2017, Chapter 7 Section 33, also requires arrangements for transportation to and from the workplace in employing a female where the working hours begin after sunset or before sunrise. Advocate Sadikshya Maharjan says that this particular section, while well-intentioned, can also cause smaller companies to discriminate in hiring women as they are not able to provide these services.
Another area of the Labor Act, Chapter 2 Section 7, prohibits discrimination in remuneration for equal work. However, unequal pay issues continue to persist in the sector. IT companies are usually structured around payment through projects. Therefore, discrimination while assigning job responsibilities leads to a vicious cycle where companies assign lesser-paying projects to women, leading to lower performances in performance reviews. This subsequently leads to less pay and lower chances of promotion resulting in more incidences of discrimination. Ojaswi Poudel, currently a Software Engineer at Cotiviti, says that she faced such blatant discrimination in one of her previous workplaces. However, she believes having women in senior positions in the company can help break this cycle. She also sees the need for senior women mentors so that younger women have someone to look up to and gain more confidence in this field. She says she does not face such issues in her current company which is more structured, has proper mentorship, and has clear payment policies.
Sadhana Gurung shares similar advantages in her company. Gurung who works at Leapfrog Technology currently as a Software Engineer, QA has proper mentorship models, flexible timings, as well as opportunities for growth in her company. This might also be one of the reasons why it is easier to get more motivation from peers and have women-friendly policies at the office. She also notes how despite fewer women currently working in IT, even clients and senior management are happy to see women workers, are welcoming, and provide proper career guidance.
While it would be a generalisation to say that there is very less discrimination based on only three experiences, trends do point towards more inclusion and provisions of a more equitable working environment for women in tech. With more women choosing the tech sector for their studies and work, and established companies having non-discriminatory policies, the tech sector in Nepal seems to be slightly ahead of the curb than other workplaces in Nepal. A study by McKinsey research showed that the most diverse companies are 48 percent more likely to outperform the least gender-diverse companies. It is then to the benefit of everyone to create a more gender-diverse workplace. There is more to still do to achieve gender parity but the tech sector in Nepal definitely seems to be heading in the right direction.
This blog is a part of NIPoRe’s blog series on Women’s History Month 2023.
Trail bridges affect the mobility and socioeconomic conditions of Nepalis, most significantly across the country’s rural areas. Currently, there are over 7,500 trail bridges in Nepal benefitting approximately 14 million people, almost half of the country’s entire population.
As per some analysis, Nepal still needs 2,400 new trail bridges to ensure that all citizens have quick and easy access to basic services like education, health, and markets within an hour’s detour. Post Bridge Building Assessments 2015 reveals that women predominantly use the bridges for household tasks, including gathering fuelwood and fodder. But, there have been delays in the construction process of trail bridges owing to rugged terrain, bureaucratic impediments, and limited financial and technical resources. This affects the lives of many Nepalis, particularly of the women who live across the country’s rural parts. It leads to a disproportionate impact on women, limiting their ability to access essential services, economic opportunities, and safety. Nepali women still lag behind the rest of the countrymen in terms of socioeconomic growth and human development aspects. This issue needs more attention from the key stakeholders, including the Government of Nepal, the private sector, development partners, media, and civil society among others.
In one of NIPoRe’s ongoing projects, we have been working with our partners and researchers to assess the socioeconomic impacts of trail bridges on the lives of local communities across 77 districts of Nepal. Being a part of the research team, I had an opportunity to witness the struggles and challenges that women in Nepal’s rural areas face on daily basis. For example, during my field visit to various remote areas across some of the districts situated across all three geographic areas (Terai, Hill, and Mountain), I could see the rural women carrying heavy loads on their backs along with their kids while crossing rivers and walking along unsafe modes of transportation (phadkey).
During the focus group discussions (FGDs), the women participants shared their experiences of how delays in the construction of a trail bridge impact their lives and limit access to essential services, markets, education, healthcare, and social mobility. For example, women expressed facing challenges in accessing markets and ward offices, which have severely limited their ability to take advantage of all available opportunities. In addition, due to the delays, they were forced to remain absent from major programs and training which mostly have been held on the other side of the rivers. On top of that, women are obliged to take a detour of about two hours to reach another forest to collect fodders and fuelwood during the monsoon season.
The lack of trail bridges has also limited women’s easy access to locally available healthcare services. A member of a women’s group (Aama Samuha) from Sabhapokhari Rural Municipality of Sankhuwasabha District shared that, pregnant women walk long distances or rely on unsafe modes of transportation (phadkey) to reach the nearest health post, leading to numerous complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
The FGDs with the local health management committee (HMC) reiterated that the dangerous river crossing posed difficulties for female community health volunteers (FCHVs) administering important health services across Nepal’s villages such as vaccination programs, family planning, and health education. Women’s stories like these are relatable for most communities across rural parts of the country.
In the meantime, these voices are from areas where the construction of at least one trail bridge has started but are yet to be completed. Despite the difficulties that these women face (due to the absence of a bridge) they are hopeful and eagerly anticipating the construction’s completion. They believe completion of construction would bring positive changes to their lives and the whole community.
Various studies show that the trail bridge construction provides women with economic opportunities through wage labor. Almost one-third of the individuals participating in trail bridge construction are women. It improved access to healthcare, markets, and jobs once the trail bridge is completed. Moreover, women are involved in planning and decision-making for trail bridge construction. At least 50% women representation is mandatory in the user committee and at least one woman should be in a leadership position (i.e., as committee chair, secretary, or treasurer). Several case studies demonstrate how the trail bridge program is empowering women’s full participation and leadership. Hence, prioritizing the construction of these trail bridges on time can go a long way in mitigating the negative impact on the well-being and livelihoods of rural women in Nepal.
This blog is a part of NIPoRe’s blog series on Women’s History Month 2023.
“An ambassador is not just an emissary but a bridge, a mediator between cultures and countries.” – Robert Blackwill
Ambassadors are among the key cogs in the conduct of diplomacy. They are responsible for promoting their respective countries’ national interests, negotiating and navigating with policymakers, providing information and recommendations based on ground information, facilitating diplomatic and economic relations, and promoting the home countries in the host countries, among others. Essentially, they are the face of their home countries and the bridge to the host countries.
Besides their roles, the ‘face’ of the ambassadors can also be a source of signaling. For example, the profile of the ambassadors appointed could hint at the importance of the country and the kind of image the home country would like to project abroad.
I have briefly analyzed what ambassadors’ ‘faces’ hint at in this article from a gendered lens. To do so, I have looked at the resident ambassadors from foreign countries to Nepal, including the UN country representative (or the last ambassador if there is no ambassador currently appointed, and current Nepali ambassadors stationed in Nepali embassies abroad from a gendered lens. The summary is just a snapshot of the scenario and not a trend. Hence, this should not be over-generalized or extrapolated to analyze the ‘face’ of specific countries across time and space. Also, the article does not compare the effectiveness of the roles performed by ambassadors of various genders, though that is an area for further research.
The following table provides the summary:
The table shows that eight of the 26 resident foreign ambassadors in Kathmandu (including the UN Country representative) are women. The women ambassadors account for one in three resident ambassadors. Among the OECD members (including the UN), half of the 12 ambassadors are women. Sri Lanka and Egypt are the only two women ambassadors from non-OECD countries. The UN and the OECD members have been at the forefront of promoting gender equality in Nepal. Their appointment of ambassadors reflects that message.
On the other side, Nepal has 30 embassies abroad and three permanent UN missions. Of the 33 ambassadors, only three are women. In other words, Nepal has appointed ten men ambassadors for every one woman ambassador. This shows that, despite government policies, men dominate Nepal’s diplomacy. The three women ambassadors are appointed to the OECD member countries (Israel, South Korea, and Spain). It could be because Nepal wants to portray progress made on gender equality in those advanced countries which largely provide aid in the sector.
Nepal has taken critical legal steps to ensure women’s representation in the political, bureaucratic, and social arena. Despite the efforts, most areas are highly male-dominated with some token women representation. Even at the MoFA, the senior posts (joint secretaries) are men-dominated. In this context, the lower number of women ambassadors only reflects the limited presence of women in diplomacy. Women’s presence is also negligible among the ‘foreign policy experts’ outside formal diplomacy.
In this context, the government should prioritize the appointment of women ambassadors based on political affiliation/expertise to compensate for the numerical gap at the senior level in the MoFA until MoFA becomes more representative at the senior level. It is high time that Nepal’s face is represented abroad by ‘representative’ ambassadors.
This blog is a part of NIPoRe’s blog series on Women’s History Month 2023.
Nepali women have played pivotal roles in various initiatives across communities throughout the country. Their participation has been significant to foster social and community development as they have worked across different fields from building collectives to protecting nature. The blog discusses three cases that are evident to show how women have been the drivers of community changes in Nepal.
Women as Community Forest Preservers
Nepal has been implementing the community forestry program for more than four decades. The program, initiated in the late 1980s, has been able to grow with 22,266 community forest user groups throughout the country. Earlier, policy provisions advocated for 33 percent participation of women within the community forestry programs. While their participation saw a slow start in the beginning years, it has now surged beyond expectation in the Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs). According to Pandey and Pokhrel (2021), after the amendment of the policy provision from 33 percent to 50 percent of women’s participation to be in the executive committees of the CFUGs, the women’s proportion significantly increased beyond 50 percent to date. This shows that women have been leading the efforts to manage and conserve forests across their communities in Nepal. However, given their role as primary users and their participation in natural resource management, the question remains on opportunities provided to them for proactive executive leadership roles within the existing user committees.
Women as Female Health Care Volunteers
The Female Community Health Volunteer (FCHV) program was initiated by the government of Nepal in FY 1988/1989. These volunteers throughout the last decades have been at the forefront to provide essential basic health care services such as family planning, polio campaigns, maternal and child health programs, immunisation programs, and health education, to name a few. More than 50,000 women across the country today serve as volunteers and act as a bridge between families, communities, and public health facilities. Nepal’s advancement in health, especially in meeting the MDGs and SDGs, can largely be attributed to the proactiveness and consistent contribution of these women. Efforts for polio eradication and other initiatives have been successful through their local leadership. Their contribution to reducing maternal mortality (MM) in Nepal can be taken as an example. MM reduced from 539 in 1996 to 239 per 100,000 live births in 2016. To make this possible, FCHVs have acted as the closest contact in communities and are comparatively affordable for disadvantaged communities which makes them the easiest to reach for services and referrals. Moving forward, it is most important to better recognize their contribution and plan incentives for their continuous participation.
Women as Community Organizers
Ama Samuhas – also known as Mother’s Groups – are the informal organizing of women across grassroots communities in Nepal. Women voluntarily come together to create platforms for dialogue, initiate social awareness programs, organise cultural events, and create mutual funds. They have become the quickest and easiest contact mechanisms, especially for women, during times of difficulty. These groups, majorly, led by women and mothers, give them ample opportunities to form collectives for larger community welfare. They have been successful in creating safe communal platforms where they can exercise power and experience a certain level of independence and autonomy. They especially organise to raise awareness against social issues in their localities that otherwise hamper their basic rights. Additionally, these women also contribute to infrastructural development by leading and assisting in construction and repair works. Hence, with changing scenarios, mother’s groups have also adapted themselves to the local prevailing situations and contributed to diverse needs on issues ranging from infrastructural development to social reforms.
Women and their activeness in local community initiatives have in such ways been remarkable. Nepali women, despite the engraved patriarchal values of Nepali society, have defied the odds and been present at the forefronts of change time and again. The leadership roles that they have showcased have undoubtedly inspired the next generation of young people, especially women, and girls. It is now also our responsibility to acknowledge their leadership, provide what they deserve for their efforts, and better plan the continuation of what they have initiated.
This blog is a part of NIPoRe’s blog series on International Women’s Month 2023.
Nepal, since time immemorial, has been regarded as an agricultural country. From most politicians’ speeches to our class textbooks, our idea of the Nepali economy has revolved around agriculture. Historically, that was true; in the late 1980s, it was the livelihood for more than 90 percent of the population – although only approximately 20 percent of the total land area was cultivable – and accounted for, on average, about 60 percent of the GDP and approximately 75 percent of exports – the numbers of drastically reduced as of today.
While some reports still claim that more than 66 percent of the total population is still engaged in agriculture, the contribution to GDP is declining each year compared to other key non-agriculture sectors. In the last ten years alone, it has declined from 32.7 percent of the total GDP to 23.9 percent in the previous fiscal year, FY 2021/22. Meanwhile, the contribution of the service sector has increased immensely, reaching 61.8 percent in the last fiscal year.
If one travels across Nepal’s villages, this decline in agricultural sector becomes even obvious. Most arable lands in the country remain empty, with workers traveling to foreign countries in search of better employment opportunities. The annual increase in remittances sent back reinforces this new economic reality. The villages are left chiefly with young kids and the older people who depend on remittances to sustain their livelihoods. Meanwhile, agriculture is still being done largely for sustenance rather than for commercial purposes, painting a bleak picture of the country’s agricultural endeavors. It is not remiss that out of our top five exports in the last fiscal year, namely soybean oil, palm oil, carpets, woven fabrics, and cardamom, only cardamom is commercially farmed, with other top exports being imported and exported again, with little value-added within Nepal. Interestingly, cardamom only contributes 2.4 percent of our total export value, while our top export, soybean oil, contributes 24.1 percent.
Some Experiences from the Field
This is not to say that efforts are not being made or commercial farming is not being done. Local levels were primarily found to be proactive in this regard as well. In particular, our interviews (done as a part of NIPoRe-ALIGN research collaboration) with the local government chairs and mayors showed that many local levels had focused on agriculture to raise its population’s economic standards. In the Sisne Rural Municipality of Salyan, for example, the local government had made efforts to separate different zones of the municipality into various agricultural sectors. The local government assigned different zones to plant different types of vegetables and fruits depending on land conditions and weather to increase productivity. The lands were found to be productive for fruits such as kiwi and oranges. Similarly, in Ichhyakamana Municipality of Chitwan, the local government brought a provision to distribute NPR 5 for each plant planted by the locals to encourage farming. Additionally, the local government also offered subsidies for buying cows or buffalos. Similar efforts by local governments can be seen throughout the country. Development partners and the federal government have also encouraged farming by regularly training farmers and distributing much-needed seeds and fertilizers.
However, efforts many times look to be wasted. Various issues come to light in conversations with agricultural experts who have worked as consultants in this field for decades. Experts whom we met during our field visits (of NIPoRe-ALIGN research collaboration works) claim that distributing only seeds without proper technical know-how of crop cycles, crop placements, and timely fertilizer inputs has led to smaller harvests with less domestic consumption and export market potential. The distributed seeds are of high quality, but inadequate understanding of timely fertilizing techniques leads to low-quality outputs that are not marketable. Farmers who have contributed many years to grow oranges, for example, then can harvest it only for two-three cycles before the trees stop bearing fruits. This leads to frustrations among the farmers, who then move on to look for better alternative opportunities in other sectors or migrate to foreign countries, as is the case in Nepal. Training for farmers also seems to be provided most of the time to fill quota numbers. Any attendee of most trainings gets monetary incentives to join in. This causes training recipients to join just because of the incentives rather than actually learning the necessary techniques helpful for them.
Rooms for Improvements
What, then, must be done to change this? At the policy level, the government has been proactive in giving out subsidies and creating tariffs to promote Nepali agricultural products. However, in reality, an assessment seems necessary to analyze who the subsidies are going to and who benefits from these tariffs. Additionally, the government needs to proactively work with local farmers in breaking the syndicate systems that have been established to get farming output to the markets. Nepali news platforms are rife with intermediaries cheating farmers of their hard-earned money and paying them drops compared to what the goods are sold in the market for. Strict quality control mechanisms are also needed if we want to be export-oriented. Quality testing facilities must be made available in major production centers so farmers can access them easily. This will serve to ensure quality goods come to domestic as well as foreign consumers. Nepal also needs to identify what products are viable to be grown in different parts of the country and determine which products have a competitive advantage. Focusing on specific products and actively working on ensuring storage facilities, testing mechanisms, and meeting international standards for those will be easier for a developing country like Nepal. The government can expand the list of identified goods as we develop our agricultural ecosystem and set better product standards. The Nepal Trade Integration Strategy 2016 was a good idea in regard to this. However, it needs to be immediately and regularly updated, keeping in mind our international export market, the value of our products, and the capabilities of upscaling our farmers.
And lastly, a provincial agriculture and trade policy seems instantly necessary to coordinate local efforts. Unfortunately, the trade data of our country still has not been able to shift to the provinces levels. With us not knowing the origin of our export products, we only have a disaggregated idea of which province is better at growing which products. Historically, some products have been raised in certain areas of the country, like tea in the eastern region, but focusing on different products means production data at local levels is a must. This will help direct our limited resources to build specific infrastructure and facilities for particular regions to increase the country’s overall export. Negotiations and identification of export markets, meanwhile, are also vital. Nepal has two large markets as its neighbors that have relatively fewer quality controls than, for example, the European Union. This means our diplomatic focus on export negotiations can be with these two large markets while we continue to improve the quality of our products and look toward other markets.
Digitalization has been at the forefront of development in the last 50 years. It has allowed developing countries to access information and resources like never before. Often, it is suggested that digitalization would help underdeveloped economies to skip the industrial development phase and quickly catch up with the developed economies, a process known as leapfrogging. Increased internet access and rapid transformation of bricks and mortar to digital form after the mid-20th century has laid out a base for the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). A World Economic Forum report suggests that 4IR will be a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. It cannot be emphasized more on how quickly developing countries need to prioritize digitalization and thrive through the 4IR. On the other hand, there has never been a time in history where access to information and knowledge has been so available. Therefore, it is a perfect opportunity for small economies to absorb as much resources as they can and recognize digital transformation as the way forward.
Nepal’s inability to compete with other developing countries in industrial development, especially manufacturing, can be primarily linked to geographical structure and human resource, among others. While digital infrastructure would need geographical convenience at installation, connectivity and evolution do not. Nepal is in a good position to exploit the digital resources that are available, and the ones it can generate from within, like electricity, to climb up the development ladder. The base for digital infrastructure, electricity, can be accessed by 94 percent of the population and Nepal Electricity Authority plans to achieve 100 percent electricity access by 2024. Internet penetration is at an all time high with 99 percent of the population having access to mobile broadband connection. It is safe to say that the Government of Nepal has realized the importance of digitalization and recognized it as the future. Hence, it published the Digital Nepal Framework 2019 (DNF) which includes short-, medium-, and long-term plans to reshape Nepal’s economic and social structure. As the government plans to focus on transforming different sectors to digital infrastructure, I discuss a few specific policies, possible challenges and what we can learn from other developing countries.
Adoption of technology
While emerging technologies are readily available, there needs to be proper policies that welcome new technology and create a suitable environment for it to grow. A study by Samuel A. Ejiaku concludes that most developing countries have ineffective information technology policies, and this hinders the proper growth and application of the IT sector. Interestingly, Ejikau points out that developed economies also have not contributed much to assist developing economies. This is because exporting technology would need to be modified to suit the environment and culture of the target economy. This means there must not only be policies that make importing of technology smooth, but also emphasizes on the need of skillful people that can make the adoption of technology suitable to that location.
Government of Nepal has identified digital foundation as one of the major sectors that needs to be addressed. Increasing quality digital access is the main goal of laying out the digital foundation. The government has recognized poor quality and connection strength, and digital literacy as the main problems that occlude the digitalization process. Hence, DNF includes plans to train all government employees using a proposed e-learning platform that is publicly available. It is expected that the training program would help increase digital literacy and the learning platform would generate awareness in the public as well as maintain the supply of digital trainers. The former makes sense, but the inclusion of the latter is vague. It is not clear if the platform would be used in schools or only the government agencies, but unless there are incentives to learn and teach, it would be difficult to consistently find digital trainers. Also, there is a plan to establish ‘knowledge-parks’ in special economic zones, but this has only been linked to economic growth. Skillful manpower is one of the vital aspects of digitalization, but DNF does not include priority plans to increase technology-friendly workers in all aspects. The government should focus on changing the academic structure to push institutions to use available technology. This would help make the workforce ready and well equipped with technological knowledge. Training programs could then be used to focus on a certain technology.
DNF has focused on changing government agencies’ structure: from paper to digital. This includes structural transformation from within the agency: recordkeeping, budgeting, and cybersecurity as well as in the services provided: public service applications, document processing and digital signatures in national identity cards. This is promising and has already come to implementation in many offices. But there is a serious lack of maintenance among the installed technologies. Lots of public service offices showcase themselves as being ‘online accessible’ but people need to show up in person and that violates the entire purpose of making the system online. A study in Ghana about the barriers to digitalization of government budgeting in developing countries identifies outdated laws and culture of paper document flows as the institutional barriers to digitalization in public service sectors. Literature in this sector identifies culture and structures of government agencies, pre-established hierarchical structures within the organization, operational divisions and politics and resistance to innovation as the main barriers to digitalization. All of these can be associated with Government of Nepal’s offices. Hence, it is important for the government to think about tackling these issues alongside the implementation of digital platforms. Most of the plans regarding within office digital transformation listed in the DNF are longer-term and those about public services are short term. I believe that this should be the opposite. Making the internal systems secure, stable, and efficient would then pave the way for service-oriented technologies like payment systems, online registrations, and administrative works. So, there is a dire need to identify what plans are short, medium, and longer term to make the digitalization process smoother.
Small and medium enterprises
With the wave of digitalization, all forms of market transform structurally. From production to sales, every aspect of the economy is affected by digitalization. While big organizations and manufacturers have early access to new technology using their power and accessibility, the government must ensure that small and medium enterprises are well placed to take advantage of digitalization. New technology provides small and medium enterprises comparative advantages especially in local markets and that is very important for the economy. Within the execution plan of the DNF, most plans focus on the agro-economic sector like training farmers about digital platforms and pre-season education, quality check of agricultural equipment using technology, and smart irrigation facilities. There are a few short-term plans about facilitating e-commerce services, digital payment systems and development of mobile apps for transportation and healthcare. However, all these plans require governmental support and political stability: which is missing in Nepal. A similar study about digitalization of small and medium enterprises in Yemen, whose numbers regarding digital penetration is similar to that of Nepal, finds that economic and political instability, and lack of support for small and medium enterprises to thrive, as the major challenges. What the government could do is learn from developing countries that have undergone digital transformation like Rwanda. Rwandan government is well known for creating an environment for small and medium enterprises to adopt technology and thrive, mainly through innovation support. Government of Nepal’s plans are good in a sense that they want small and medium enterprises to grow, there is no specific plan that promotes innovation. Small and medium enterprises excel mainly because of the uniqueness of their products and services and innovation is necessary for them to survive. The government should aim to remove bottlenecks in the creation of new enterprises and even if they fail, provide support to regrow through improved digital access and minimizing administrative hurdles, mainly in technological import, export, and deployment.
Digital access is penetrating every aspect of society today. When it comes to digital transformation, it is not if but when. The most important step developing countries like Nepal could take is to open all possible pathways to welcome and integrate digitalization into the society as smoothly and quickly as possible. In terms of time, the more time it takes for an economy to digitalize, the loss in potential to develop is exponentially worse. Therefore, it is high time Government of Nepal takes necessary progressive steps towards digitalization.