Nepal’s Women’s Movement: Global to Grassroots

Patriarchy and Women’s Movement

Patriarchy is commonly understood as the rule of the father where women, younger men and children of the family are ruled. Seira Tamang in her article on ‘Legalizing State Patriarchy in Nepal’ coins the definition given by Eileen Boris and Peter Bardaglio, which is “Struggle between women and men to control women’s labour power”. Hence, in patriarchy, adult male holds the power, position, authority, resources and lineage. This power inherited through patriarchy, men subjugate and subordinate women.

One of the key issues of the feminist or women’s movement is the patriarchy. Feminist or women rights activists all over the world raised questioned on women’s subordinated position. Throughout the world feminist or women’s right activists and/or scholars have criticize patriarchy. For them patriarchy is the root cause of women’s subordination. They see public and private dichotomy, unequal treatment in suffrage, wage and inheritance, control in reproduction, violence against women and sexual harassment as the product of patriarchy.

Historically, patriarchy started from family, society and then at state level. When patriarchy reached at the state level, it becomes institutionalized in laws and becomes wide. Every action of domination towards women becomes legal and state provides protection to patriarchal norms and values practiced in family and society. Seira Tamang’s article on ‘Legalizing State Patriarchy in Nepal’ provides critical analysis on historical process of protecting patriarchy in Nepal. She has done in depth analysis of Muluki Ain and its component on family law, marriage, property rights, divorce, adoption of child, remarriage, citizenship and so on. For instance, she gave an example of property rights where women do not get her share in the ancestral property. Similarly, women cannot transfer citizenship to her child. These were the patriarchal values that were legalized. Because of discriminatory law on inheritance, women’s were excluded from resources and become economically excluded and poor. Similarly, when women were banned from providing citizenship to her child, her motherhood is questioned. Not only that, child born without recognized father was penalized without being guilty, as he/she could not get citizenship. In this way patriarchy was legalized and strengthen by the state. Interim Constitution 2007, recognizes the equal citizenship rights, however, it is not being implemented properly. Officials in government are engrained in patriarchal thinking and find it unacceptable to provide citizenship from mother’s side. Women’s rights organizations are still advocating for it.

Patriarchy is the cause for women subordination for feminist movement. Women’s realization and awareness on their lower condition and position ask question on the practices that are deeply rooted in patriarchy in the society. It took momentum in 19th century in USA, Canada and some countries in Western Europe. In the beginning, women rights issues were raised by middle-class white females. They mostly talk about equal treatment to men and women, labour rights and voting rights. Early movement of feminism is known as first-wave feminism. Second-wave feminism began in 1960s from USA and spread throughout Western world. It covered wider issues including sexuality, reproductive rights, family, property, equal pay for equal work, work environment and so on. Third-wave feminism arises in late 1980s critiquing first second-waves of feminism. It calls for the recognition of women, as heterogeneous group i.e. there are differences of women on the basis of colours, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural background. Black feminist raised the issue of discrimination based on colour/race and ethnicity. Third world feminist raised the issue of ethnicities, religions and cultural background along with colonization. They said that not only women but also men with colour or colonized background are discriminated by white women. Or in other words they raised the question of subjugation of women and men by dominant men as well as women.

Nepal women’s movement agenda and issues were also developed in similar fashion. It all started with the awareness campaign and right to vote during movement of democracy in 1950 (2007 B.S.). Some call it by product of the national movement to overthrow Rana regime and establish democracy. In the course of mobilizing people, it started to mobilize women in the cities. They were not only from cities but also from high or middle class family and high caste women. Hence, their agendas were mainly education, awareness and voting rights. During Panchayat era, government of Nepal implemented training and awareness program for women and policy was reformed. Seira Tamang in her article indicates such changes occurred during Panchayat era (in 1963) where MulikiAin (National Code) was amended. There were two main pints, which are (a) equality before the law and (b) special privileges for women (Vaidya and Manandhar, 1985: 290-91).Shivamaya Tumbahngfe in her book Nepalma Mahela Andolan (Women’s Movement in Nepal) explained different activities of women’s movement during Panchayat era and most of them were either related to political party’s activities or student’s activism relating to women’s rights establishment. So, they are not solely women’s activism done by women’s group rather they were activities of political parties. However, women’s consciousness on women’s lowers status in law, insignificant participation in development and political organization was there. Due to external development agendas, state had to change laws, policies and formed women’s organization within Panchayat system as a specialized agency. From the point of movement, there was hardly any activity during that era that could be considered movement because women’s were mobilized by political interest. However, few activities and donor-funded studies were done in the status of women in 1970s. Such studies provided theoretical as well as empirical framework to raise issues on women’s rights. Right after the restoration of democracy in 1990, women started to organize themselves in different organizations. For example, they organize as NGO, sister organization of political party, journalist women’s association, women’s labour association, mother’s groups, indigenous women’s association, Dalit women’s association, single women’s association and so on. Most of the women raise their agenda through donor-funded activities. Seira Tamang in another article on women’s movement titles it as ‘Bikeshe Naribaad’ (i.e. development feminism) because feminist agenda and activities were set by the development projects. At the same time, open political environment gave women from different caste and ethnic group to set and voice their agenda. For instance, Dalit women raised the issue of discrimination and untouchability within women and indigenous women raised the issue of identity and culture. So, these women argued the difference among women and indicated that women agenda and issues are not universal.

The starting point of women’s movement throughout the world is patriarchy. At the beginning of the women’s movement, voice of educated and well off women was prominent which made platform for other women to raise their voice as well. Hence, the voices of women from different groups added significant value to women’s movement. Women’s rights agendas were set accommodating their voices.

Global and National Agenda of Women’s Movement

Globally as well as nationally, women’s agendas were changing. The change can be seen clearly at the level of thought and at the level of policy. For instance, Bina Pradhan in her article ‘Gender and Human Development’ explained the changing global development agendas for women after 1970s. Three different policy approaches were followed from the decade of 1970. “Women in development” (WID) was applied in 1970s, “women and development” (WAD) in second half of 1980s and “gender and development” (GAD) from 1980s to till to date. WID perspective is based on the modernization and guided by the neo-classical economic theory. WID policy was influenced by liberal feminism which suggests that education and employment will change the society and bring equality among men and women. As WID could not bring expected change in society, WAD policy was adopted. WAD was influenced by Socialist (Marxist) feminism. WAD assumed that economic empowerment of women and change in international structure will bring equality. Bina Pradhan writes GAD applies capability approach explicitly recognizes human diversity as manifest in race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality and geographic location. In this sense, GAD has followed Socialist feminism as well as incorporated the essence of Third-Wave feminism. The GAD strategy was empowerment, legal reform and mainstreaming. It assumes that capabilities of women, as compared with men, appear central to women’s quality of life that will bring them into an egalitarian relationship with their male counterparts both within and outside the household (Pradhan, 2006).

Globally women’s agenda were written explicitly in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted in 1979 and came into force in 1981 has set standard to improve women’s condition and position. It set out international standard, in relation to law, for the protection and promotion of women’s rights. Since, Nepal has ratified it in 1991, it is applicable as law in Nepal. Similarly, World Conferences on Women raised issues from around the world. Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 has set out 12 Critical Areas of Concern. They are: women and poverty, education and training of women, women and health, violence against women, women and armed conflict, women and the economy, women in power and decision-making, institutional mechanism for the advancement of women, human rights of women, women and the media, women and the environment and the girl-child. The Critical Areas of Concern has played important role in the arena of development sector.

Nepal’s development sector has been focusing on the 12 Critical Areas of Concern. Sometime one is given more weightage than in other depending on the need. After the peace agreement between government and Maoist, development sector is more focused on the women in peace and security or armed conflict. During the Constituent Assembly, issue of women in power and decision-making was more focused. All the critical areas of concerns are important from women’s perspective but the more weightage is given to one issue at some point of time than in other depending on the situation. At the national level broader issues such as women in power, decision-making, participation, women in media and institutional mechanism for advancement of women are focused. Local are more focused at education, health, employment or economic enhancement, violence against women, environment and girl child are more focused. Some of the related issues are dowry, alcoholism and violence, witchcraft and violence, domestic worker and violence, women trafficking, single women and so on.  These issues have taken concern of media as well as greater public at grassroots level. So, national level agendas or issues are of institutional level where are grassroots level are more of a personal level.

Diverse and Disperse but still a Movement

Women’s movement in Nepal is sometime questioned whether it is a movement or not. When definition and characteristics of social movement is matched together, women’s movement of Nepal shows that features. Here I have compare the characteristics of social movement mention by Josheph R. Gusfield with women’s movement of Nepal.

Josheph R. Gusfield characterized “social movements in being socially shared activities and beliefs directed toward the demand for change in some aspect of the social order”. Gusfield indicates basically five characteristics in the definition of social movement. They are: (i) socially shared, (ii) activities and beliefs, (iii) demands, (iv) change, and (v) social order.

i) Socially Shared: Women’s movement of Nepal does have socially shared beliefs and actions. Women’s rights organization and networks speak of patriarchy, women’s subordination, women’s empowerment, women’s participation in decision and so on. In the beginning of 1990s women leaders had hard time recognizing differences and diversity among women. For instance, Dalit women as well as men were discriminated in the society by so called upper caste women whether she is rich or poor was gone unnoticed when blanket approach was applied and saw all women are same, indigenous women’s cultural and linguistic rights were seen as fundamentalists, in the case of Madheshi women dowry was the only issue that was counted. After the millennia, growing voice of women from different caste and ethnic group, women’s leaders has recognized the diversity of women in Nepal. Shadow report on CEDAW submitted from NGO sector to Committee on the Elimination on the All Forms of Discrimination Against Women at UN had included these issues of different groups of women as emerging issues that were not included before. Issues of Dalit women such as untouchability, issue of indigenous women such as identify, culture and language, issue of Muslim women is related to religion and Madheshi and Karnali women’s issues came under geographical exclusion, and widow women’s issue was incorporated in the issue of single women. So, women’s movement raises overall aspect of human rights issues of women. Women raising these issues may raise it from their own perspective that might not match with another group. However, they raise voice for the equity and equality as well as increase in their condition and position.

ii) Shared activities and beliefs: Women’s movement had shared activities and beliefs for that call for social change. Women groups and organizations are involved in different advocacy activities asking for equal rights. In many cases they are organized as the organization’s annual plan of action, sometime as project activities, sometime party activities and sometime with women’s willingness. Because of its nature, it is also labeled as ‘vikashe naribaad’. Even though it is labeled as ‘vikashe naribaad’, it supports the cause of women and develops women’s agency. So, women’s activism is more of a collective action that has come from the need of women and asks for the change. For instance, Tharu women ask for proper remuneration, respect and end discrimination for those who have been working as Kamlahri (i.e. Domestic worker). Badi women (women of artisan caste who traditionally sings and dance) raised the issue of recognition, respect and citizenship rights of mothers. “Occupy Baluwatar” movement has especially ask the state to act to stop violence against women. So, women of different groups have organized activism in different way but they got support from other women as well as men.

Women’s agenda and issues were seen as guided from donor and hence criticized for being donor driven. Of course, some agendas are set globally and donors give funding according to it. Policy implementation of GAD can be taken as an example where donor funded on the mainstreaming, empowerment and legal reform for women. Within each of the strategic policy, women at national level identified their issues of advocacy. Women took the ownership over these issues. Hence, these became the part of shared beliefs.

iii) Demands:  Women’s movement today, call to the end all forms of discrimination and address their situation through gender and social inclusion. Women’s demands are seen in hype during the situation where political movements are increasing. So, it is seen as the by-product of political activism.  History of women movement showed that women started organizing themselves when they were affiliated with political organization. Their affiliation aware and gave idea on organizing themselves for their rights. During the Panchayat era there was hardly any movement. After the restoration of democracy, women rights activists started to organize and demand for their rights. At the beginning, it was more like focused on fulfillment of basic need such as education, health and participation. Later, it was equal inheritance, abortion and marital rape. Now, it is focused in equal citizenship right, power sharing in state’s mechanisms, proportional representation, sexual harassment, transitional justice and access to justice.

iv) Change: Women are calling for change in the society and in the patriarchal norms, values, policy, rules, authority and mechanisms. State has addressed many of the issues of women in the form of law, ratified different Conventions and international laws but at the level of implementation it is not implemented properly. 33 percent participation of women in state mechanism was ensured in Interim Constitution of Nepal. When we see in the state structures, there is hardly any area where there is representation of 33 percent of women. So, women are asking for the change in those areas. Similarly, at the level of society, women are implementing different program activities such as awareness rising through social mobilization or media. These kind of activities organized through NGOs are not considered a social movement by definition. However, these activities organized by NGOs have brought significant change. Due to the awareness raised among women and men, they participate and call for social change.

v) Social order: Social movement demand for change in social order or system. Women’s agenda of women in Nepal ask for change in laws that are based on the Hindu philosophy and patriarchy. As mentioned above, citizenship rights, equal inheritance, right over women’s body, power sharing and proper implementation of national and international laws. Women’s subordination and subjugation starts from home, so women’s movement at some point demand for change starting from home to state. Therefore, women’s agenda can be seen at private level that ask to change in legal provisions in family, marriage, property, abortion and adoption laws. At state level it ask for participation, positive discrimination, inclusion and power sharing.

Women’s movement of Nepal when compared with the key features or characteristics of social movements, it matches with it. The degree might be different in five characteristics but there is involvement. Some people might say it is development not a movement when it is seen at the organization level. It has that distinct characteristics in the case of Nepal but because of that development activity women’s voices were raised. Development activity worked as the catalyst for brining voices of women in forefront.


Women’s movement throughout the history has gone through several changes in its nature and ideology. In a way it has taken the cumulative path. It has been generous enough to include different issues of women from different socio-cultural background. Globally, it started brining up issues of middle-class educated white women and now it has incorporated the issue of race, ethnicity, culture, geography and age. Similarly, it started with education and awareness, and now reached to the point of diversity of women. Women with different background are taking collective action to bring about change. In case of Nepal, collective action might not be seen at the mass level but it is seen at the level of ideology.


Gusfield, Joseph R. (ed.). 1970. Protest, Reform and Revolt: A reader in Social Movements. New York:John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Pradhan, Bina. 2006. Gender and Humand Development. In Nepal: Readings in Human Development. Sriram Raj Pande, Shawna Tropp, Bikash Sharma and Yuba Raj Khatiwada (eds.). Kathmandu: UNDP.

Tamang, Seira. 2000. Legalizing State Patriarchy in Nepal. In Studies in Nepali History and Society.Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point. Vol. 5 No 1. p. 127-156

Tamang, Seira. 2004. Nepalma Vikeshe Naribaad. In Nepalko Sandarbhama Samajshastriya Chintan (Sociological Thought in the Context of Nepal). Dosen, Mary and ProtyushOnta (eds.). Kathmandu: Social Science Baha.

Tumbahangphe, Shiva Maya. 2002. Nepalma Mahila Andolan (2004-2046) [Women’s Movement in Nepal (2004-2046). Kathmandu: Akhil Nepal MahelaSangh.

Vaidya, Tulasi Ram and Tri RatnaManandhar. 1985. Crime and Punishment in Nepal. Kathmandu:Bini and Purna.


9 thoughts on “Nepal’s Women’s Movement: Global to Grassroots”

  1. I am doing my Masters Thesis on a similar subject. Being the male of the same patriarchal society probably my viewpoint will somehow support the men mentality. But I have tried my level best to stay neutral and true to facts.

    Your article here too, has a one way speech of feminism where men are always taken as the blockade of women development. Nevertheless, what we should not forget is that if Feminism has been able to flourish this far it is also because of men’s support equally.

    Can you imagine if men were totally against women rights, would it be possible to write the above article and publish it ? And to more surprise male readers reading it. H ha h aha…!!

    It was a great help for me anyway. Thank you for that and would love to hear from you 😉


      1. Dear Sophiya,

        You can read the one that are in the reference in my article. Beside that I’ll suggest to look into the reports and shadow reports of CEDAW (submitted by govt and NGOs to UN). This will help you to understand how women’s right issues has been emerging. Beside that I would suggest you to visit documentation Centre of Women’s Studies which is in Padma Kanya Campus.

        I think this will help you a little


  2. Sanjay ji,
    It is nice to hear that this article of mine helped you in your thesis. Of course feminism is supported by men and there are feminist men as well. I completely agree with you. I don’t think I’ve said anything against men in the article, but of course, I talked about patriarchy which is related to domination of male made norms and values. Without talking about patriarchy, feminism will not be complete. In patriarchy, women are not only sufferers men are also. There is a strong relation of power in patriarchy. In my article I’ve not touched upon that issue but you can always give that perspective in your writings.


  3. Hey. I just came across this post. My name is Nikki. I work with Offerings Wholesale who buys fair trade items in Nepal. We are working on a campaign through Indiegogo that will support one woman in Nepal’s business. It would mean a lot if you would share it and help us raise the funds we need to build her and her collective a refuge:


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