Gender based discrimination in Kalikot: A cloud with a silver lining
“Chora paune lai khashi, chori paune lai farsi” During my 45 days long stay at Kalikot district of Nepal I often found local women making this rhetorical yet literal remark denoting that postpartum woman would be offered treat of mutton soup on the occasion of male child’s birth and pumpkin soup if the newborn is female. More often than not, this implied the disparity in care a postpartum woman received on account of the newborn child’s sex but by and large it could be construed as the existing gender-based discrimination in the region. This writing is based on my personal experience during field research at selected villages of Kalikot incorporating some peculiar observations regarding persisting gender discrimination and some incipient positive shifts in social practices. While some of the practices were overt and plainly apparent, others required astute observation to be identified.
Kalikot district is situated in the Mid-western region of Nepal. Administratively, the district is a part of Karnali Province. Geographically, it is divided into Himalayan region, Higher Mountain and Mid Mountains with elevation ranging from 738 m to 4790 m from mean sea level. The villages visited had a multi ethnic composition of Brahmin, Chhetri,Thakuri, Damai and Kami. In regard to infrastructure and development, a majority of villages were still geographically isolated in the absence of road access and required a minimum walk of 2-3 hours (for the locals) to reach the nearest road.
Literature and media often portray life for girl child in remote regions of Nepal like Kalikot as being steadily challenging owing to gender-based discrimination at household and community level. Seemingly, girls in this region are treated less favourably right from the time of birth. On the occasion of a male child’s birth, the family and close relatives welcomed and marked his birth by playing Panchai baja [folk musical instruments comprising of trumpet, cymbal and drum]. The postpartum mother was treated special and offered with mutton soup and local delicacies at home. Both mother and baby would receive extra care and comfort from immediate family members during the postnatal period. In one incident, I personally came across a group of villagers playing Panchai baja in front of local health post and later proceeding towards village with postnatal mother, newborn and the family. On inquiry with other spectators from the village, it turned out that a baby boy was born in the family and this was a gesture of celebration. Likewise, there was a unique “Ratyauli” custom where relatives and villagers gathered at house, feasted sumptuously, sang and danced in celebration of the male child’s birth. Neither of this was practiced during the birth of a female child. Quoting the local women verbatim, care and support the postpartum mother and girl child received would comparatively be meagre.
The socio-cultural context elucidates why sons had greater social importance than daughters notwithstanding that this elucidation is not exhaustive. Consequential need for a son roots down to prerogatives conferred by Hindu tradition where he is reckoned the rightful successor to take the family lineage and, further, the socially acceptable informal carer during parent’s old age and the alleged liberator who, by performing their death rituals will enable them pave the way to heaven after death. Bound by feeling of insecurity, the practice of having at least two male children was widespread in the region. This is because infant mortality rates in the past were so high that there was a pervasive perceived need to have at least two sons in the family so that in unfortunate incidence of one’s demise due to illness or any unforeseen circumstances, the other remains. Therefore, in spite of already having one son, families often gave birth to multiple children until and unless the second male was born.
Slowly but surely, things are also changing for better. “In September 2005, the Nepal government announced it would provide rice to any family that had recently had a girl born in a bid to encourage change in social attitudes towards girl child” (source: Wikipedia). On weekdays, 10 A.M. was a particularly busy hour. The relatively quieter village used to be filled with sound of hurried footsteps and muffled laughter made by flock of school-going children; both male and female. School education for a girl child is emerging as a regular and common activity. Moreover, there were provisions of adult literacy class particularly for women at various parts of villages. Many local women could at least read and write their names, a personal accomplishment they showcased with real pride. They were making a step; might be just a baby-step, but it is a step. The notion vis-a-vis treating girls and women on their monthly cycle as impure was still prevalent. None the less, if one puts on the perspective lens of optimism, one finds the incipient silver lining in the shift of attitude and practice towards them. The menstruating girls/women in this region were not banished to “Chau” [cattle shed or makeshift hut] far away from the home. Instead, arrangements were made at the basement cabin of the house that was moderately hygienic and warmer.
Speeding development of roadways has been, and is, a regular phenomenon in Kalikot at present. Drawing a parallel between the roadway development and positive social changes, there is an earnest anticipation that light of awareness will find its way to individual minds just like roads penetrating nooks and corners of the region. Each of these cognizant minds will be drawn closer and brought together like the roads connecting otherwise topographically isolated villages. In due course, affirmation will be bestowed on a girl child as an equally important member of the family and community just like roads presenting the local people with access long denied.
On second thoughts, I find slight humour in pumpkin treat to postpartum mothers with female newborns. As unintended as it might be, there is a touch of tenderness towards girl child too. After all, pumpkins actually are one of the most nutritious super foods.
(Previously published in journal entitled Mountain Trail 2018)