The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) pledges for adoption of policies to eliminate discrimination against women. Nepal is a party to this agreement. Nepal as a signing member has pledged to eliminate the practices that are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women. Yet the traces of misogyny normalised by the patriarchal mind-set, which tends to see women as a second-class citizen, can be seen all around. A prime example is the discriminatory citizenship law not allowing women to pass on citizenship to her offspring. Many scholars and human rights activists have raised this concern.
Article 51 (j) (1) (Part 4 of Constitution of Nepal, 2015) provides policies relating to social justice and inclusion. The article states, “to keep on making appropriate arrangements for the livelihoods of the helpless single women, while according priority to them in employment on the basis of skills, competency and qualification”. Section 3 of The Social Security Act, 2018 of Nepal provides list of persons who are entitled to social security allowance: (a) Senior citizens, (b) Indigent, (c) Incapacitated and helpless persons, (d) Helpless single women, (e) Citizens with disabilities, (f) Children, (g) Citizens unable to take care of themselves.
One may argue, the provision itself is meant for upliftment of women. Additionally, owing to the fact that women face socio-economic, educational and political disadvantages in our society due to old age patriarchy and oppressive regimes they are more likely to live in poverty than men. So why question the protective measures and mechanism that is trying to help and empower women? The answer lies in the phrasing used “helpless single women”. We see that the phrasing assumes only a single woman can be helpless. Somehow due to the patriarchal mind-set it assumed; it is only the woman who will be helpless in such a situation but never a man. We are not to assume even for moment that such language undermines a woman. It is at its core a well-intended mechanism of women empowerment and social protection programme, but ironically its phrasing itself reeks of patriarchy. It may solve the monetary or situational problem that a woman faces, but it by its mere wording keeps perpetuating the misogyny and gender disparity which is dangerous for the long run calling her “helpless”.
We must understand that, measures of protection can be a core mechanism for oppression of women when provided with special treatment. It has been widely observed that special treatment more often than not marginalises women, as can also be seen in the present context. Such marginalisation subconsciously perpetuates patriarchal and feudal mentality amongst its citizens and disempowers women. Nepal must realise that women need protection from man-made customs and practice which lays its emphasis on vulnerability of women instead of concentrating on their capabilities.
It has been observed that the provision classifies women as a separate variable when the provision already mentions “incapacitated and helpless persons”. We ask, why are men never classified as separate variable based on sex? Anthropologists and decision makers alike use various variables for classification based on sex, age, disability, or ethnicity. Some hierarchies are important such as the difference between a minor and an adult or senior citizen. On the other hand, when there is classification based on gender and then specifically woman to be “helpless” it is indicative of putting the woman at a lower pedestal than man. This is a clear sign of age-old oppressive patriarchy and discrimination based on stereotypical expectations, attitudes, and behaviours towards women.
Research shows us that, “each time we use sex as a sociological variable, we implicitly accept the fact that women belong to a separate category, are treated like a minority and are in a position of inferiority relative to a masculine norm of reference used to define social phenomena from their male vantage points”. This very ideology is the root of discrimination of women in the public sphere and the reason why they are more prone to living in poverty than men.
A major underlying problem is the absence of gender sensitivity while designing the social security law and protection programmes. We fail to realise that “helplessness”, “suffering” and “destitution” is not only a “single women” centric issue and that dependency and security issues see no gender while wreaking havoc. Every distressed member of society has a right to social security and protection. Therefore, social security law must address the individual’s distress without any gender bias involved in the process. Careful attention is required to not let patriarchal concepts of women being the "weaker sex" perpetuate either through articulation in; or, the very nature of a policy. Research shows that “there is a greater chances to promote women empowerment and eradicate poverty, when gender-sensitive considerations are taken into account while designing and implementing a social security law and policy”. Right to social security in developing countries is greatly associated with eradication of poverty, elimination of social insecurity and advancement of gender equality. Therefore, the objective of social security and protection programmes can only be justified in developing countries with more egalitarian laws and policies promoting gender equality.
Misogynist stereotyping and discriminatory provisions keep perpetuating within a patriarchal society by seeping into the fabric of legislation, keeping women in a lower pedestal. A report published by Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHR) states that, “how traditional attitudes by which women are regarded as subordinate to men perpetuate widespread practice involving violence and coercion”. Nepal being a signatory of CEDAW is obligated to take all the measures to modify “harmful gender stereotypes” and “eliminate wrongful gender stereotyping” which regards women in a subordinate position. This has been recognised to be an essential and important step in women empowerment, gender equality, upliftment of human rights and overall development of the country internationally. Even a range of human rights mechanisms have highlighted and taken active steps to remove or abolish any misogynist stereotype language about women incorporated in the legislation or textbooks.
(Adhikari is a lawyer with a Master’s Degree in International Criminal Law and International Human Rights from Bangor University, United Kingdom.)