Nepal has about two dozen laws that discriminate against women. One debars them from inheriting parental property, unless they remain unmarried till age 35. That is more than half the average life-span of Nepali women. Also they have to relinquish property, after deducting wedding expenses, if they marry after inheritance. Women can dispose inherited property only with the consent of male family members. For Nepali men, inheritance is a birthright.
Equality of the sexes has been in Nepal’s constitution since 1958. But when the Muluki Ain or Public Law was amended in 1962, clauses that discriminated against women were not changed. A bill in parliament seeks do to that. The proposed 11th Amendment of the Public Law has resulted from a court ruling that required the government to table a draft, following a petition by two women lawyers. The two had petitioned the Supreme Court in 1993 seeking annulment of laws that contravened with the provisions of Nepal’s democratic constitution (1990).
There are, however, no guarantees that Nepal’s parliament—which has traditionally had more males than females—will adopt the bill. The politics was apparently afraid because the new law could have change some long standing traditions. That the bill could have caused some short-term vote losses in the May 1999 elections was perhaps one reason why the now-dissolved parliament did not make approve the amendment.
The 11 Amendment would allow daughters to inherit parental property. They would, however, be required to return the inheritance if marry thereafter. According to the latest version in the House, the provision would ensure that women, who can also inherit their husband’s property, are not doubly propertied—in “unfairness” to men. The draft also drops some derogatory words and phrases used to refer to actions associated with women. “Elope,” for instance, has been replaced by “marriage.” “Daughters” has also been added to every reference the law makes to “sons”.
The opponents still argue that allowing women to inherit property would destabilise the social system. They fear that the law could lead to increase in property disputes between kin and further division of already divided land holdings. Some have even gone to the extent of arguing that the economic freedoms for women could lead to increased infidelity, divorces and sexually transmitted diseases. Still others argue that giving uneducated women their rights could be taking them only half the way. They ask: what would they do with rights if they are not capable of enforcing them? As solution they argue for leaving inheritance to the will of parents. The argument for this is that parents can pass on property to those that take care of them in old age.
Women comprise more than half of Nepal’s 23 million people. They are less educated and work longer hours than men. Son preference is very high in the predominantly patriarchal, Hindu kingdom. In a society where social security does not exist and property is passed on to male descendants, sons are looked upon as old-age insurance. It is also widely believed that sons “open the gates of heaven” by carrying out the last rites of parents. Daughters are “given away” in marriage. These explain, to an extent, the prevalence of sayings like “let it be later but let it be a son.” The resultant discriminations in upbringing of girls perhaps explain why Nepal is one of the few countries in the world where men live longer than women.
Nepal’s adult female literacy is less than 25 percent, compared to about 55 for males. There are also many communities that prefer to marry daughters early rather than invest in their education. The new law would also raise the legal age for marriage of girls from the present 16 to 18 years.
The draft is silent on many other issues activists have been raising. One is enlistment of women in the army. Another is registration of personal incidents—births, deaths, etc.—which can now be done only under the name of the male head of family. Nor does it address another provision which bars individuals from obtaining citizenship on the basis of a mother’s status, but can if the father is a Nepali citizen.