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The BBC's Daniel Lak in Nepal
"Peanuts are her only source of income"
 real 56k

Saturday, 17 February, 2001, 14:25 GMT
Nepali women fight for their share
Market stall in Nepal
Nepali law denies property rights to women
The BBC's Daniel Lak asks if women in Nepal want equal property rights

In a small village near Kathmandu, Devika Chhetri is selling peanuts by the roadside. It's how she earns enough money to buy food.

Ms Chhetri is married but her husband threw her out of the family home a few years ago because the couple couldn't have children.

She's since learned that he is sterile, not her. But that hasn't stopped him from taking several more wives in an attempt to have a son.


We deserve a share in the family property

Janaki Shreshta
All of that is legal under current Nepali law.

"We are an intensely patriarchal society," says lawyer Sapna Pradhan Malla, who represents Devika Chhetri in a court case that's trying to force a change in the Nepali law that denies property rights to married women, and allows husbands to marry again if wives do not get pregnant.

"It's a fight for more than property rights. We want men to acknowledge that women have human rights."

Survival

Ms Chhetri is more circumspect. "It's my survival," she says. "I haven't paid rent for a year and my landlord is getting angry. Selling peanuts isn't what I want to do."

It's all she can do.

Rural women
Nepali women are raised to labour on the family farm
Devika Chhetri - illiterate, uneducated - is typical of many rural Nepali women. They're raised to be housewives and to labour on the family farm.

If they're single, divorced or widowed, they simply haven't got the means or the status to get along in life.

Janaki Shreshta has a slightly different problem.

She has a good education and owns her own beauty parlour. But, like Devika, she's not earning enough to support herself, so she's taken a second job.

Unequal

Her parents want to give her a share in the family property, but her eldest brother is refusing, as is his right under the law.

So Ms Shreshta teaches hairstyling every morning before opening her salon for business.


We want men to acknowledge that women have human rights

Lawyer Sapna Pradhan Malla
And she awaits the day when as a woman determined to remain unmarried, she can claim equal rights with her brother.

"Men and women are not equal here," she says.

"Daughters help their families when they can. Sons are preoccupied with raising children and ignore their parents. We deserve a share in the family property."

The current session of the Nepali parliament - although paralysed by infighting at the moment - is supposed to consider changes to the country's Hindu-influenced civil laws that might appease Devika Chhetri or Janaki Shreshta.

But there are many opponents to the changes.

Recipe for disaster

Barrister Ganesh Raj Sharma has written a legal opinion for the government against changing property rights.

Market in Nepal
Critics say the proposed changes are a recipe for disaster
He agrees that men and women aren't equal in Nepal, but says that's an attitude that runs too deep to modify through the courts.

"These reforms are a recipe for disaster," he says.

"You'll have families clogging the courts with property disputes, farms and land being broken into every smaller parcels, and possibly even the sort of domestic violence that you see in India -people attacking their daughters-in-law if they don't bring their share of family property as dowry. We're just not ready for this."

Opposition

Opposition to the proposed changes also comes from a surprising source - urban youth in Kathmandu. A recent radio phone-in programme on KATH FM 97, a popular station among the young of the Nepalese capital, found about 90% of callers dead set against the new law.


If I want to leave my property to my son, daughter, cousin or charity, it should be my choice

Bobby, student
Bobby, a 17-year-old student whose excellent English reveals him to be a member of the local elite, put it most succinctly: "We should have wills here, just like America or Europe," he told host Sophia Khatun.

"If I want to leave my property to my son, daughter, cousin or charity, it should be my choice."

Sapna Pradhan Malla and surprisingly Ganesh Raj Sharma both say that wills would be best. But for different reasons, they feel the country is far from ready.

Mr Sharma thinks change in Nepal has to happen gradually, and by consensus.

"Politicians should be building support for new, liberal social measures, not ramming them through parliament and then ignoring them in law as we've done with so many other things. That sort of change always leads to disaster."

Ms Pradhan Malla says "We need to improve the status of women a step at a time and this (amendment to the civil law) is a start. Soon we'll go for more rights, more dignity.

"When we're ready for wills, we'll be a proper liberal, welfare state with support programmes for widows, the disabled and the destitute. If it leads to women playing their full role in developing this society, it's the right thing to do."

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See also:

03 Dec 00 | South Asia
Nepal's women breaking barriers
24 Nov 00 | South Asia
Frontier sex-trade vigil
08 Nov 99 | South Asia
Nepal's abortion scandal
13 May 99 | South Asia
Nepal's women back democracy
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