Affirmative action by the three tiers of the government can help bring an end to gender-biased sex selection

Compared to the past decades, Nepal has made tremendous progress in empowering women and girls through easy access to education, health care, employment opportunities and representation in the three tiers of the government. Adult female literacy rate has reached 59.72 per cent as per the 2018 data of UNESCO, from around 48 per cent in the 2011 census. Still, the adult female literacy rate is far behind the adult male literacy rate, which stood at 78.59 per cent in 2018. Although the gap in the educational opportunity between males and females is almost non-existent in the urban centres, it is widely witnessed in the rural areas, especially in Province 2 and Karnali Province, where the life expectancy is also by far the lowest compared to the other regions. The government has made a huge investment to bridge the gender gap in terms of education, health care and job opportunities to girls and women. But its impact on society has yet to be seen. Girls and women are still treated as the second sex, and gender-biased sex selection (GBSS) in favour of sons is still widespread despite the awareness campaigns being launched by the government and NGOs.

Tradition, culture, religion, socio-economic condition and legal injustices are the main reasons for undervaluing girls and women. The constitution and laws do not discriminate against girls and women.

But it is the socio-cultural factors that hinder girls and women from moving forward in part with their male counterpart. Minister of Health and Population Hridayesh Tripathi, addressing the High Level Inter-Ministerial Dialogue on scaling up action to end son preference and GBSS on Friday, said GBSS is coupled with tradition, such as dowry and the laws around inheritance that undervalue girls and women. It requires a multi-dimensional approach to end the GBSS, which causes imbalance in the sex ratio at birth. A recent UNFPA study confirmed 12 hotspot districts in the country where the sex ratio at birth is imbalanced. The study showed there is strong pressure on women to bear a son, a practice which hampers women's reproductive right and health, leading to domestic violence.

There are several laws to guarantee women's rights.

But these rights remain ineffective unless society itself rises above the traditional thinking and culture.

The preference of a son over a daughter is widely prevalent in eight Tarai districts of Province 2. Considering the plight of the girls, the provincial government has launched the "beti bachao; beti padhao"

(save daughter; educate daughter) campaign, offering girls an attractive financial package for their education upto grade 12. A similar campaign has also been launched in Karnali Province, where the provincial government deposits Rs 1,000 every month in the bank account of a daughter for up to 20 years since her birth on condition that she will attend school and complete grade 12 by that age. These two instances show that the provinces have identified the root causes of GBSS and tried to address it through positive intervention. These affirmative actions will not only help girls become well educated but also delay early marriage, which is the main reason behind the various health complications suffered by women.

Learning Newari

Kathmandu Metropolitan City's decision to introduce the Newari language in the school curriculum from the current academic session is likely to nudge other local governments in the country to follow suit in teaching a local language. There are 640 private schools and 92 public schools in the Kathmandu Metropolis, and they will all be required to incorporate the Newari language in the school curriculum from grades I to VIII. This is as per the Local Government Operation Act-2017, which provisions that the local government can incorporate one subject related to local culture, language, history or technical education to reflect the local identity.

Actually, the Newari language was an optional subject in many schools until the New Education Plan was introduced in the mid-Seventies, and students sat for its exam as part of the SLC curriculum. More recently, some schools have been teaching the Newari language in a bid to preserve the language and rich culture and traditions of the Newars. Hopefully, the KMC has not taken the decision to introduce the Newari language in schools in haste. Once introduced, it must not be discontinued mid-way for lack of financial and human resource.

A version of this article appears in the print on March 15, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.