Ten Nepalese women composed the first exclusively female team that first scaled Mount Everest on May 23, 2008. In doing so, they accomplished a unique feat. Equally significant was the message this historic act embodied for all women in Nepal: "There is no peak in the world that women cannot conquer."
The successful expedition to the world's highest mountain was celebrated in the Himalayan state as the "great leap forward for Nepal's women". The summiteers -- Shushmita Maskey, Shaili Basnet, Nimdoma Sherpa, Maya Gurung, Poojan Acharya, Usha Bista, Asha Kumari Singh, Nawang Futi Sherpa, Chunu Shrestha and Pema Diki Sherpa -- have since been availing of their renown to campaign in the country's schools for equality of opportunities for women.
The importance of this lies in the fact that women have for centuries played a peripheral role in the traditional Nepali society. But now they have won a certain amount of recognition -- in the literal sense of the word: both as participants in the ten-year-long civil war led by the Communist Party (Maoist) against the unpopular monarchy and in the popular demonstrations, which in 2006 brought an end to King Gyanendra's dictatorial rule.
Until the outbreak of hostilities in 1996 the sight of armed women and girls in what was then the Kingdom was almost unthinkable. In the Maoist People's Liberation Army they were however well represented. They accounted for more than one-third of the combatants. Nepalese women began to be held in high esteem because they were not only deeply engaged in politics but very often the sole bread-earners of their families.
Guenther Baechler from Switzerland, who played a decisive role as a special adviser of his country to help negotiate a peace agreement, recalls the critical role of women, whom he describes as the 'agents of change' who took to the streets in 2006 to demand peace and democracy.
"The issue of human rights violations, impunity, and human security helped to create a nation-wide women's movement across different sectors, professional groups, parties, and identity groups," says Baechler.
"The movement gave women greater space to raise their voices in the streets of Kathmandu and district headquarters (provincial towns), as well as in the political sphere of the state institutions," adds Baechler in his report titled 'A Mediator's perspective: Women and the Nepali Peace Process'. It was published by the independent mediation organization 'Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue' in August 2010.
Women missed their goal of being broadly represented in the peace room, but independent women and some female members of the main political parties were able to participate in preparatory talks, consultative meetings, capacity building activities, as well as meetings with the Peace Secretariat which was transformed into the Peace Ministry after the CPA Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) was signed.
In particular, women were represented in the 'peace task force' which was composed of representatives of the political parties, the Peace Secretariat, local facilitators, and international advisers, (facilitated by the 'Nepal Transition to Peace Initiative'), underlines the Swiss peace mediator.
The women's movement in Nepal was successful even before the peace treaty of 2006. Their relentless lobbying forced the government to pass a bill in 2002 that decriminalized abortion. In the same year the Nepalese government passed a legislation that allowed women to inherit property at birth. Four years later, the Supreme Court abolished a law allowing men to seek divorce if their partner was infertile. Soon afterwards, women were allowed to give their children citizenship rights.
Also in 2006, a parliamentary decision assured Nepal's women of 33 percent of jobs in all state institutions. In addition, women engaged successfully for a proportional representation electoral system, which gave them a fair share of seats in the Constituent Assembly.
As a result, the Constituent assembly consists of 197 female politicians who speak with one voice when it comes to anchoring important women's rights in the future Constitution. Moreover, with Sahana Pradham as the country's foreign minister, Nepal has the first female on top of the country's Foreign Ministry.
Besides, since 2009, the parliament in Nepal has enacted a law making domestic violence punishable.
This chain of positive developments in Nepal places the country among a few states that can show progress in the implementation of Resolution 1325 of the UN Security Council. The resolution (which celebrated its tenth anniversary on October 31) calls for the equal participation of women in all spheres of securing peace and the protection of women against sexual and other kinds of violence.
Behind the achievements of Nepalese women are personalities like Binda Pandey, who had in the 1990's also fought on the frontline for the restoration of democracy. "It is so important that gender equity is included in the new constitution," says the 44-year-old woman and peace activist, who chairs the 'Fundamental Rights and Directives Principle Committee'. The committee is tasked with shaping the future civil rights in Nepal -- and embody these in the Nepalese constitution.
Binda Pandey, one of the 1,000 women peace women worldwide, points to a multitude of problems that have yet to be overcome. "We have so far been successful in advocacy but when it comes to policy making, we still need to build up skills in presenting our points," she says -- particularly when it comes to concrete measures to prevent sexual violence against women and to assist the many victims, thus putting a brake on the male-dominated political system.
Nepal's Supreme Court apparently shares the view and called upon the government in February 2010 to avail of 2010 -- which Nepal has declared the year to end gender-based violence -- to mull over the prerequisites for setting up 'kangaroo courts' that punish the perpetrators of violence against women without unnecessary delay.
It is difficult to find up to date and reliable figures on the extent of violence against women. Provisional statistics have been provided by INSEConline.org, the first Nepalese news portal for the human rights situation in the country. According to these, 225 cases of attempted or executed rape were registered in 2008 in Nepal.
The number of female victims, according to INSEC, was 233. They were between 33 months and 63 years of age; the vast majority -- 162 -- were 16-year old. In seven cases the victims were killed after being raped. In 31 cases girls and women fell prey to group-rapes.
INSEConline crafted a profile of the perpetrators, who were aged between 13 and 79 years and came mostly from the surroundings of their victims. Due to legal loopholes most of them could not be brought to justice. Srikanth Pouder, spokesman for the Supreme Court of Nepal, speaks in this context of a "legal vacuum" and criticizes that there are no measures to compensate the victims of violence or to help them integrate back into society.
Another unsolved problem is the trafficking of young girls who in thousands are every year 'sold' by their families as housekeepers mainly to families in India. Many of them end up in prostitution and, according to human rights organizations, are subject to brutal exploitation.
Worst abused are also widows and women belonging to the caste of 'untouchables' (Dalits) in rural areas. UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, estimates the number of Nepalese widows at about 800,000. Many are war widows, and 67 percent are under 35 years of age. The loss of their husbands overnight has forced them into social isolation. Discrimination, violence, sexual exploitation and lawlessness often determine their everyday lives.
As the poorest of the poor, widows and Dalit women are often held accountable for deaths and other misfortunes in their surrounding. What it looks like in practice was described last year by a victim from the Lalitpur district, 40 kilometres south of the capital Kathmandu. After several cattle died, the woman was brutally maltreated, imprisoned and forced to eat her own excrement. She was freed only after a forced admission of guilt. She brought the case before a court of justice, but those who maltreated her harshly got off scot free after paying fines.
Women activists such as Binda Pandey keep urging Nepal's male politicians to publicly condemn gender based violence. But positive responses appear to be more than unlikely. Guenther Baechler has accused the former warring parties in Nepal of misusing the Constituent Assembly as a stage for tactical games and individual power gains.
"The elected women -- many of them in the political arena for the first time in their lives -- were of course not able to stop this nonsense by the political parties' powerful male leaders," he bemoans.