Because the role of the woman in Nepali society is by and large restricted within the family, her participation in development must also necessarily be within the family.
During recent years whenever development has been discussed, “Women and Development” has been very much on the agenda. It is recognised that because of their invisibility in the decision-making process, women have not gained much from the efforts made so far. The result has often turned out to be the creation of special women-oriented appendices to projects already planned, add-ons that have generally ended up as failures. These add-ons benefit nobody, not even the women directly involved.
The main reason for the failure is that development has been planned to benefit persons in society without any understanding of the fact that, women are not the same sort of citizens as men. A woman is a particular kind of social individual within a particular social formation. Women live different lives from men, through their different roles in society and through the state structures and policies. Development efforts have a different impact on women than on men.
Even though “women and development” is so often misunderstood, it is still very important to inscribe an analysis of gender identities and differences into every single plan or project. Gender is a cultural construction, meaning that the concept of ‘woman’ and that of ‘man’ are culturally specific and not naturally given, as opposed to sex, which is a biological construction. Society is built upon cultural constructions of gender, class, ethnicity, religion, etc. The perception that people differ in all social life according to class -and caste relationships is already broadly recognised as important in the planning of development; for example, that it is necessary to plan according to whether the ‘target group’ is made up of peasants or wage earners. This is because the impact of development as well as the two groups’ possible participation in development will differ.
It is my argument that the study of gender is of equal importance to that of class in determining development plans and priorities. Gender must be regarded as the fact of human social life that it is. I do not want to claim absolute determination based on this one construction, as social life will always be experienced, constructed and mediated in interrelation with all the given structures.
In Nepali culture, in most cases, the “woman” is tightly linked to her roles within the family, her kinship relations. The status of a woman is determined by her success in fulfilling these roles. Her success in being an obedient daughter or a kind and respectful wife, her capability of giving birth to sons and being a good mother to all children, and so on. These roles (that is, the specific construction of gender) determine not only the woman’s status in society but indeed her entire life. This construction pervades the structures of society as a whole, and so the woman’s place is thought to be mainly to work in the domestic sphere. This construction also leads to the state laws of marriage and inheritance.
Due to its various and widespread influence, this understanding of women’s roles is thought to be a natural concept by the Nepali people. The concept of naturalness is comparable to that of sameness, as they both indicate a universality of women’s roles, which is non-existent.
For example, motherhood is often thought of as a natural role for women and also a universal one. But even though the biological woman everywhere, of course, does give birth to the child, the socio-cultural reality of being a mother differs widely. In some societies, mothers are thought to have the sole responsibility for the child’s upbringing. In other societies, the child might be brought up by the community irrespective of who the biological mother is.
Because the ‘construction’ of woman defines her social activities, it also defines her possible actions towards changing society, i.e., through ‘development’. Because the role of woman in Nepali society is by and large restricted within the family, her participation in development must also necessarily be within the family, or at least on the family’s premises. Which means that among the most effective areas for women in the field of development is health and hygiene.
Changes in health are affected by decisions in the family and in the changing of everyday work-tasks within the domestic sphere, such as teaching children to wash hands before meals, how and what to cook and the overall hygiene in the house. Due to the woman’s responsibilities for these tasks, changes in the health of the family in large part can be brought about by the woman, Because improvement of health is an essential factor for the development of the country as a whole, Nepali women should play a crucial role when discussing changes within this sector.
In another culture, where the daily upbringing of children is shared with social institutions, where women are more involved in the public sphere than in Nepal, or where health problems do not relate as much to hygiene within the family, women’s role in the development of health programmes might be a totally different one.
Women’s special role in participation in the development within the health sector is but one example. Similarly, in other sectors, the special status of Nepali women should define their role in development. Special when compared to men’s participation, due to gender differences (the fact that women and men are different social individuals) and special when compared to women elsewhere, due to specific culture in society (the fact that women are not universally the same).
T Curtis is a student of cultural sociology in the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.