At all levels of society, in ways great and subtle, women are expected to submit. In large swathes of the world, including Nepal, it means a denial of basic rights and freedom, submitting to the patriarchal system and giving in to the demands and often abusive behaviour of men.
The international perception of Nepal is often that it is a poor but happy society. But behind the sweet smiles of the women you may encounter on your Himalayan trek, is often a story of extreme discrimination, hardship, deprivation and abuse. Men, especially those from poor areas, with little education or prospects of a decent job, are apt to drink and take their frustration out on those of lower status than themselves – their wives and children.
Low-caste girls are at the bottom of the social heap. According to tradition, when girls start menstruation they are locked away in a darkened room for at least 7 days, and not allowed in the kitchen because they are unclean, nor to see the sun or a man because both are ‘god’. The custom of chhaupadi in Western Nepal, where girls are banished to a shed every month, has perpetuated despite being outlawed in 2005.
Rural girls often miss out on education because they have to do domestic chores and work in the fields. 40% of women are married under the age of 18. Upon marriage, they become the property of their husband, and are subjugated to his family. A husband may move away to work, leaving his wife a domestic slave to her mother-in-law. Domestic violence – physical, sexual, psychological – is rife and goes largely unreported because of the shame felt by the woman.
Belmaya was born to this existence. Orphaned aged 9, she ended up in a home for girls. Belmaya married to gain independence, but instead became a domestic drudge to her husband and his mother.
Through Belmaya and her family, we learn about the injustices and issues facing women in Nepal. Poverty, gender and caste discrimination, domestic and sexual violence, lack of education, poor health and hygiene, poor nutrition, and early marriage and child-bearing.
It’s an endless cycle, passed down from generation to generation – unless girls are given education, support and opportunities.