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Student traces the lives of village women in Nepal

STANFORD -- Madhuri Mathema recalls being outside a rural Nepali village and seeing "a little girl, hardly the size of an American 7-year-old, wearing a bride's red sari, red blouse and red shawl, crying and refusing to follow young man."

Mathema learned that the girl, who was actually a malnourished 12-year-old, was being taken to the home of her "husband." The young girl's mother-in-law wanted the bride to help in her home. "She is old enough to understand her responsibilities and duties," said the girl's grandmother. "As a woman she cannot live in her parent's home forever."

For Mathema, the incident was another example of how Nepal's village women are failing to free themselves from a centuries-old cycle of poverty and submission - despite, in this case, government agencies set up to help and prot ect women; despite, even, a minimum legal age of 16 for girls marrying in the Himalayan kingdom.

Mathema, who recently received her doctorate in education through Stanford University's International Development Education Committee (SIDEC) program, has written about these and other experiences in her dissertation "'Improvin g Rural Women's Lives: A Case Study in Nepal."

Mathema, who is Nepalese, becomes impassioned when she speaks of these rural village lives.

"The village women are usually married at 13 or 14," she said. "By 35, they have given birth to at least seven children, three of whom survive, and they've never seen the door of a hospital. They don't have the time to comb the ir hair or see their own faces in the mirror, if they have one. Their children don't have time to go to school. They are the caretakers of the family while their parents are out in the fields."

Mathema cites Nepal as one of the poorest nations in the world, with a per capita income of $170 a year. More than half the population lives below the poverty line, almost 80 percent is illiterate (90 percent of the women and 6 7 percent of the men), and more than 90 percent lives in remote villages in the hills and mountains that are inaccessible by road. The average life expectancy is 54 years for men and 51 for women, with indications that this "gender gap " is widening.

Starting at the age of 15, said Mathema, most women in Nepal are either pregnant or lactating throughout the majority of their childbearing years. Forty percent of the girls are married before 14, and as many as 7 percent by th e time they are 10.

Mathema's 9-month field study took place in the village she has called "Shivapur." She heard of and saw incidents of a woman crawling with hunger because her mother-in_law refused her food, women and children chronically te ing on the edge of death because of ill-health and malnutrition, and a young women who was worshipped by villagers because she committed _sati_ [ritual self_immolation on the funeral pyre of her husband] in the late 1970s.

Mathema, who comes from a privileged and politically influential family in Nepal, said she didn't always understand the problems and thinking of the village women.

"I asked many silly questions of the women and I got angry with them many times," she said. "But they all just laughed at me! Maybe they were thinking how naive and slow I was in understanding their situation and actions."

For example, "I could not figure out why a mother-in-law would steal grain from her own granary. Why a wife would hide things from her husband while claiming that he is the only person who can save her from misfortune.

"The daughters-in-law complained about mothers-in-law, and every young girl that I talked to knew that one day she, like the others, would face the 'cruelty' of a mother-in-law. But every young girl looked forward to getting ma rried! . . . I saw more open conflicts among women themselves than between men and women. Women complained more about each other than about men."

Domestic wars with mothers-in-laws

In the agrarian villages of Nepal, the ownership of land determines social position, controls the labor and loyalty of others, and governs the ability to mobilize institutional credit and other public resources in times of cris is.

"The ability to transact land, not the ability to do useful labor, allows someone to appear independent," Mathema said. She noted that, because of the importance of land, "most of the disputes filed in court are land disputes."

Since women in the village society do not inherit, acquiring power and authority occurs through access to a male. Hence, young girls are eager to marry, because daughters have no power or authority within their natal homes - th ey cannot even get enough food to eat, in many cases. Daughters are viewed as a liability and married off as young as possible since "the gift of a virgin" is one of the highest religious virtues Hindu parents can "earn."

On entering her husband's home, a bride's first task is to detach her husband's loyalty away from his mother - hence, the battle for power with women and their mothers-in-law. Later, she attaches her sons to her to assure her p ower beyond her husband's lifetime.

"A woman who seeks power must latch onto a man and try to control the world through him," Mathema wrote. "A woman who has lost the favor of her man may never gain power."

Publicly recognized assets - such as cash, or livestock, or land - can always be appropriated by the husband. Cash profits women earn through their own labor - in the well-meaning Women's Development Project efforts, for exampl e - were often taken by men, who used them to purchase such luxuries as radios, wristwatches or alcohol.

"Ironically, by making women's income generation public, the project makes their control over that income less secure," Mathema writes. "Instead, it is grain that gives women power."

In the rural areas of Nepal, "most transactions are still done through the exchange of grains. Hence, having control of over the granary means having the ability to transact," Mathema said.

"I observed in the village women earning favor or friendship through the gift of grain to other women. And in that way, they may also achieve some solidarity among themselves, supporting each other in times of crisis."

For this reason, women in the household will steal grain from their own granary.

Turning household grain into pewa, a woman's personal property, is a tricky prospect because it threatens other members of the domestic group, and a woman can be challenged by her mother-in-law, who knows what a wife brought in to the household at marriage and what was acquired afterward.

"The granary is a vital aspect of women's lives and without it they become powerless. The women within the same household have their own individual interest and use the granary to achieve their own goal," Mathema said.

"While pursuing their personal interests, women are divided from each other - the mother-in_law's interest in helping her own married daughter by selling [stolen] grain is in direct contradiction with daughter-in-law's inte in extending her own sphere of influence beyond the household by the gift of grain to others. It seems this is the very reason why mother-in-law and daughter-in-law cannot get along in most cases as there is only one granary in the ho usehold."

How a loan project causes hunger

Mathema's study also traces the effects of a Women's Development Project loan program, funded by UNICEF, the World Bank, and IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development), among others. The program loans women 6,000 ru pees ($200) to buy a new breed of milking buffaloes.

The idea behind the program is to "free women from the land" and make them more enterprising by bringing them closer to the market. But the women know that the market is uncertain: for example, the loan repayment schedule does not take into account that the buffalo gives milk for a maximum of eight months a year. In addition, the buffaloes can die at any time, trapping them in a huge debt.

And the "improved" buffaloes, the ostensible reason for the loans, cannot survive well in the hilly region, according to the women. The new buffaloes have trouble navigating the hills and require two baths a day - too much for the water-scarce village. Besides, the money they earn from the buffaloes can always be taken by the men.

In fact, the women covertly use the loan money to purchase more land, which will eventually yield more grain. To disguise their subterfuge, they try to increase the yield from old buffaloes. Hampered by the need to repay the lo an, they work additional hours in the new fields and care for the aging buffaloes (a burden that largely falls on the women, not the men), water down the buffalo milk to increase sales, and sell household vegetables.

The women told Madhuri: "We used to have plenty of yoghurt, buttermilk and ghee at home. We never sold yoghurt. But now we have nothing. Every pint of milk has to be sold in town. We look at our children and their lips are drie d for not having milk. We feel sorry. Sometimes we feel like not taking the milk to town at least for one day and let the children enjoy it. But we cannot afford to lose the money even for a day."

Girls, in particular, also receive less food - Mathema recalled seeing the daughters in one household fighting over turns drinking from a small bowl of milk. To perform the extra tasks in the households, the girls in the family frequently have to give up school - "thus reproducing in the next generation conditions of female dependency that was the goal of the project to alleviate," Mathema said.

"Daughters are not in the picture anywhere - not in the project's picture, not in the mother's picture," she said. "Whatever money mothers acquired, they tended to use in ways that benefited their sons, buying land that sons wo uld inherit or paying for a son's education."

In addition to paying more attention to daughters, Mathema urges future government and internationally funded projects to consult more closely with the women they intend to help.

"Women's own indigenous knowledge about illness, markets, agriculture, animal husbandry and cooperative labor, if well understood by development agencies, could be made the basis of project design. Women are the best designers of their own programs," she said.


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