Although the constitution has not discriminated its citizens based on gender, the laws need to be amended to see this in practice

It's evident that without the participation of women in economic activities on an equal footing with men, a nation cannot make the desired progress.

Hence, for decades now, countries across the world have strived for gender equality, yet women continue to face legal barriers that restrict their economic opportunity.

And the coronavirus pandemic that started at the beginning of 2020 has only posed new challenges to the health, safety and economic security of women, who were already disadvantaged before the outbreak. On average, women have just three-quarters of the legal rights afforded to men, says a new World Bank report "Women, Business and the Law 2021". The report has measured the laws and regulations across eight areas that affect women's economic opportunities in 190 countries, from September 2019 to October 2020. From restrictions on movement of females in the community to the challenges of working, parenting and retiring, the report provides comparable data to help achieve global progress toward gender equality.

In the context of Nepal, while the new constitution has not discriminated its citizens based on gender, its laws need to be amended before we see equality between men and women in practice. And it would be a fallacy to assume that women here enjoy equal status and rights with men based on the lifestyle of an unrepresentative class of women in the urban areas. Women continue to be treated as second-class citizens, with the government time and again formulating rules and regulations that are an insult to their dignity and restrict their access to economic opportunities. A case in point is a recent proposal of the Department of Immigration that would have required a Nepali woman below 40 years of age to seek permission of her family and local government before she could travel abroad alone. The proposal, which had already been forwarded to the Home Ministry and was ready for execution, met with such vehement opposition from women and human rights activists and constitutional experts that the government had to shelve it. True, the proposal was made keeping in mind the safety and security of women while travelling for work abroad, but there are other ways to do so, such as by regulating the recruitment agencies. Instead of treating them like children, including women in the decision-making process would have saved the government a lot of embarrassment.

Following the outbreak of the pandemic, the report has also looked at government responses to it and how it has impacted women at work and at home. It notes that the pandemic contributed to a rise in both the severity and frequency of gender-based violence (GBV). This is understandable given that women lived in close proximity of the GBV perpetrator during the lockdown period that all nations resorted to. Nepal, for example, saw a doubling in the number of complaints of domestic violence during the lockdown period as compared to the same period before it. Legal reforms apart, providing justice in all areas to improve the lot of women will require a coordinated approach of the government, civil society and international organisations.

Illegal river mining

There is no let up on the illegal mining of river products – sand, boulders and stones – across the country although the government has issued clear guidelines for their extraction with a view to protecting the local environment, forests and aquatic life.

Sand, boulders and stones are the most used raw materials in the construction sector, which helps drive the national economy forward and also generates employment opportunities for the people in the domestic market. However, over extraction of the raw materials may be detrimental to the environment and soil stability, resulting in flash floods in the rivers and landslides in the hilly and mountainous areas.

A report from Tanahun states that eight vehicles were seized from various parts of the district for illegally excavating and transporting the river products over a week. The vehicles were seized and their owners fined ranging from Rs 23,000 to Rs 60,000 for using them in illegal river mining. Such illegal activities can be controlled if the local levels take prompt legal action against the wrong-doers. As per the guidelines, there are certain areas from where the construction materials can be mined without impacting the rivers and local environment.

A version of this article appears in the print on February 26, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.