Women’s Empowerment at the Frontline of Adaptation

Women, Development, and Poverty Women have always been an invisible

Table 1: Nepal gender statistics (%) Year 2001

force in the development of rural areas as primary actors, rather than just vulnerable groups. Current statistics, observations, and analysis confirm that the situation of women in Nepal has improved over the past ten years (see Table 1).


Indicators Population

Women Men

Women Men

50.06 49.94 51.44 48.56 34.9 62.7 57.4 75.1


Female Headed Households 14.87 85.13 25.75 74.25 Source: Nepal Living Standards Survey 2010/2011, Government of Nepal 2011a

Nepal has an impressive female to male sex ratio and there has been considerable improvement in the literacy rate for women in the last decade. However, according to the Nepal Living Standards Survey 2010/2011 (Government of Nepal 2011a), the literacy rate among adult women still shows gender imbalance. Only 45% of the national adult female population is literate, compared to 76% of men. In rural areas, this figure is even lower with only 39% of adult women literate, compared to 67% of men. Similarly, women’s representation in the legislative body, the Constituent Assembly, elected in 2008 was at a record high at 33%, thanks to the reservation of seats for women. However, women’s participation in public decision making in general is still limited, especially in rural areas (Election Commission 2008).

The Nepal Living Standards Survey data also indicate a simultaneous increase in female-headed households in Nepal. In development discourse, female household headship is often seen as an index of the increasing ‘feminization of poverty’ (Kabeer 1996 and 1997; United Nations 2000). Female household headship often arises in situations of economic stress, whether through labour migration, marriage breakdown, or inability of extended kin to provide support to abandoned women and children. Women’s disadvantaged position in accessing entitlements; lower income level due to a general lack of skills, education, and training; and heavy workload given their productive, domestic and reproductive responsibilities, along with constraints on mobility, put female-headed households at a disadvantage

(IFAD 1999; Rai 2002; Kabeer 2003). While it has been argued that female headship should not be equated with ‘the poorest of the poor’, it is generally agreed that some aspects of female headship can give rise to economic disadvantage, compared to male headship, particularly in terms of income. Female-headed households do not compete on a level playing field and require special attention (Chant 2003). However, it is essential to ‘unpack’ the category of ‘female-headed households’ within Nepal to understand the finer detail of its linkage to poverty and further research is required to determine the vulnerabilities or strengths that female headship results in. The statistics in Table 1 mask a significant variation in women’s empowerment across different population sub- groups, as defined by factors such as poverty level, geographical location, livelihoods, and caste/ethnicity. Women from vulnerable social groups face severe constraints in accessing opportunities and improving their wellbeing. These include poor and socially disadvantaged women (on the basis of caste or ethnicity), as well as those in underdeveloped regions, such as the hills and mountains and within parts of the Terai (lowland plains adjoining India). For example, according to the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP’s) Nepal Human Development Report (Tiwari et al. 2009), women in the poorest quintile (20%) of the population have on average 2.5 more children than those in the richest quintile. Geographically-speaking, young females in the mountain and hill regions spend longer hours on heavy activities than males. Women in the mountains and hills of the Mid Western and Far Western development regions, in particular, face more challenges as indicated by several


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