Women at the Center: War and Peace in Nepal

Nepal is one of the least developed countries in the world and majority of the population has to survive on low productivity agriculture. Nepal is also one of the few countries in the world where women have a lower life expectancy than men. Nepali women experience a maternal mortality rate of 740 per 100,000 live births and 76% of Nepali women are illiterate. Only very recently women were granted the political right to own property and in 2003 women were granted the right to abortion but with strict medical restrictions. Child marriages, restrictions on widows remarrying and arranged marriage practices are still followed widely. However, Nepali women must not be placed within a homogeneous framework and should be examined within a diversity of identities and positioning as women from different castes face different forms of oppression and freedom. For example, Indo-Aryan women face higher restrictions on physical mobility whereas women from the Tibeto-Burman group have more freedom to engage in income-generating activities outside the household. Nepal, being the only Hindu Kingdom in the world, follows a strict caste system placing Indo-Aryans higher than Tibeto-Burman groups on the caste stratification. Furthermore, the Tharu people that exist at the bottom of the caste strata are usually destined to serve as servants and bonded laborers for the upper classes. Tharu men and women are displaced from their villages and taken to larger cities as servants with little or no money guaranteed and many times subjected to physical and sexual violence.

While the circumstances of Nepali women continue to be oppressive, Nepal is also in the midst of a civil war that cannot be ignored. The conflict in Nepal today provides us with an opportunity to examine where women are situated and how women's roles are transforming in the country.

The conflict began in 1996 after a "vertical split" within the United Marxist-Leninist Communist (UML-CPN) Party. Nepal has had a long history of accommodating communist's parties since the 1940s, where at one point there existed nineteen political parties that identified themselves as Communists. The pro-democracy movement in Nepal in the late 1980s and the overthrow of the monarchy in 1990 was largely instrumented by the UML-CPN. The split in the party came from the opposition of certain party members (who later led the insurgency in 1996).

The insurgency today has a distinct feature from other political movements in the past, namely the high participation of women, not only in supportive roles, but also as combatants. This is a critical issue for Nepal given the historical positioning of Nepali women. In the rural western part of Nepal, the conflict has brought about a significant change of roles for women in many of the Maoist controlled villages. Women have been key players in the conflict comprising 40% of cadres in combatant roles. By arming the women in rural communities which have been ignored by government policies and resources for so long, the People's Army is gaining massive support in rural Nepal. In some of the villages, leaders and fighters of various Guerilla fighter units are women and their leadership in such traditionally masculine roles have transformed the way the People's Army looks. Women from lower castes who have been traditionally positioned at the bottom of the social hierarchy are today joining the ranks of the guerilla fighters. And while the CPN Maoists claim that 40% of the party is women, it is hard to say how many women occupy leadership roles versus those who are fighting on the frontlines. During the peace talks in 2003 and 2004 there was only one woman, Comrade Parvati, who sat at the negotiation table.

There is very little writing on women's roles by the People's Army. It is known that in the early days of the insurgency many aspects of misogyny were dealt with through the creation of special courts and by attempts to curb behaviors such as drinking and gambling.

Women guerrillas work as combatants at night and do propaganda and production work during daytime. Where circumstances demand, exclusive women's guerrilla squads have been constituted, but this is more of an exception than the rule. One incident in Rolpa is worth mentioning where an exclusive women's guerrilla squad was responsible in annihilating a feudal tyrant who was also known to exploit women sexually. At every village, area and district levels women have been mobilized under women's mass organization. In revolutionary stronghold areas people's court have been established where along with other cases, cases against women's exploitation have been brought to book with the combined effect of Village Defense Committee, women's mass organization and the people. Many cases of land usurpation of widows or single women have been restored to them through such courts. Many defaulting husbands who have taken to drinking and beating of their wives or practicing polygamy, sexually exploiting women have been disciplined through such courts.

-- "Women's Participation in People's War in Nepal" by Com. Parvati

While People's courts may be vibrant in the Maoist control regions there are no empirical data that provide evidence of how these courts are run, how cases are brought forward, and what kinds of processes are used to determine the outcomes. The fact remains that Nepali women, especially rural Nepali women, continue to face a major threat of trafficking; despite People's Army attempts at dealing with issues of misogyny, there has not been a decline in the number of women who are being trafficked to brothels in India. In fact, the lives of women who are trafficked have become more vulnerable due to the heavy military presence at the Nepal-India border. There are stories of trafficked women suspected as Maoist supporters being mishandled by the authorities, as well as the highly dangerous situations women face during border crossings as a result of militarization of the borders.

While women are supposedly taking equal part in the conflict and as their identities transform from passivity to active participation, there are questions that must be examined. It is important to ask, at this stage of the movement, how, and if, women will maintain the notions of"equality" promoted and instituted once the conflict ends?

The Maoist forces continue to gain support in many parts of the country and the government forces continue to repress and control the lives of innocent Nepali people. The future for Nepal as it stands now remains bleak unless outside forces such as the US, India and Britain stop supporting the undemocratic monarchy. It is clear that the People's Army have control of the countryside and their power continues to grow. How then will peace emerge out of this volatile situation and how will the forces at play deal with such issues as women's transforming roles, disarmament and reintegration of combatants, or issues surrounding the continuing trafficking of young women and girls from Nepal?

The process of peace must then emerge out of a third space, a space that hears the voices of those most affected by the war. Peace must emerge out of a space where civil society organizations are strengthened, and in particular, women's voices are located in the center. Women's participation must become the nucleus of the peace process if either side is serious about creating lasting peace. All forces in power must recognize that women are linked intrinsically to the conflict as they are the ones who are caring for soldiers on both sides, the ones losing their husbands, brothers, fathers, and today they are also on the frontlines. Therefore, women's voices must emerge as a voice of sustainable peace and vision for the future of Nepal.

The international community and the Nepali diaspora also have a heavy responsibility to put pressure on both the government and the CPN to follow a course of peace and reconciliation. Tools such as United Nations Resolution 1325 (2000), provide concrete ways of examining gender in conflict and post-conflict situations. The resolution outlines the need for nation states and the international community to effectively deal with issues women face during conflict times such as gender-based violence, rape as a tool of war, women's access to rule of law in post-conflict situations, and the feminization of war. These issues are extremely imminent for Nepal's future because we have seen, over and over again, that women are the ones left behind to rebuild and recreate social and psycho-social structures once the war ends. Women are the ones who console the children, rebuild their homes, provide for the family, and live with the trauma of war regardless of where they are situated within the societal structures.

All sides must re-examine what has been accomplished and lost in the last decade of war and repression in Nepal, the truth behind the tales of physical and sexual abuse of women by soldiers on both sides, and how to effectively hear the voices of the most affected in the process of rebuilding and reconciliation. The responsibility of the Nepali state today lies in empowering its civil society to construct its own path of peace and justice and to end the archaic feudalist and crony monarchy rule that continues to support structures of gender and caste oppression and truly examine how the war has affected the Nepali people and reconstruct an inclusive dialogue of peace.

The ceasefire today provides an opportunity for all sides to recognize the strength of the civil society, particularly Nepali women, and empower the people to steer their own futures.


Hi Richa, thanks for the great article with lots of information that has created a sensation for nepali women like me. But the data you entailed are found not very authentic. can you say where did you find the percentage of women combatants in the maoist which you say 30 % ?? Thanks joys

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