Taking It Higher: Women's Liberation in Nepal

Struggle and Transformation in Eight Years of People's War

by Li Onesto

Revolutionary Worker #1231, March 7, 2004, posted at rwor.org

In 1999, as I travelled throughout Nepal to cover the People's War, led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Rachana was one of my guides. In the dark of night her outstretched hands had pulled me up the steepest parts of the mountains and steadied me when I teetered, crossing dangerous ravines. Like most guerrillas in the People's Army, Rachana was young and from a peasant background. For long days and nights she trekked up and down the mountains, as quick and sure-footed as the men in the squad, carrying heavy loads, along with her rifle.

One day I asked Rachana if she would tell me about her life. At first, she hesitated, surprised that I wanted to interview her. Then she said, `OK, but let's do it later, after dinner. First, I want to think about what I want to say.' As it turned out, it was a couple of days later--when we reached the border where we had to say farewell--that we found an opportunity to sit down and talk. Rachana had seen me interview Party leaders and military commanders and now looked eager and excited to be the one to have her words written down in my notebook. When I asked her to tell me something about her family and what it was like to grow up as a woman in her village, she said:

`There are 11 members in my family--my mother, father, three brothers, two sisters, my brother's wife and three of my cousins. I am the oldest daughter, 18 years old, and I come from a peasant family in Rolpa. My mother and father allowed my three brothers to go to school but would not let me. They told me it is worthless for a daughter to study because she will just get married and move into another household. At the time, this made me feel very sad. When a six-month adult education class opened in the village, I went to go learn to read and write. But when I did this, my father would always tell me not to go and he would order me to go to the forest instead, to cut grass and collect firewood.'

Rachana went on to describe how she came to join the People's Army:

`Before the Initiation of the People's War I did not know anything about politics or parties. But after the Initiation one of my relatives suggested that I take part in the local cultural group and asked me to go to their rehearsal. I didn't tell my mother or father about this. I only told my older brother who said, "Go ahead, if you want to die... Can you carry a gun on your shoulder?" I replied, "You didn't give me a chance to study and now I am eager to solve the problems of the people and the nation. I want to fight for liberation. If you won't allow me to go I will rebel."

`One of the local Party comrades came to talk to my family and he came over several times to discuss revolutionary politics and the People's War. One year ago, after many discussions, my father and mother happily allowed me to join the Party. I started working in the women's organization and was in the women's militia. Then, eight months ago, I was promoted to be in this squad. I am optimistic about the People's War.

`Now all the members of my family are clear on the politics of the People's War. All of them are in mass organizations, and my younger 15-year-old sister is going to school. She has passed class six and is teaching other people to read. When I was taking the adult education class I never had time to study. But in the People's Army I have time to study reading and writing, and the other comrades help me. I can read newspapers and write letters now.

`I was eager to work in the Party before. But then after joining the squad I was involved in an encounter and became even more committed. There were 14 of us going from one place to another and the police ambushed us. One of our comrades was killed and now I have a strong commitment to get revenge. I will fight against the enemy as long as there is a drop of blood left in my body. I am very happy now and we will certainly achieve our goal.'

Rachana's description of how she was denied an education was very typical of the way women are treated in Nepal. In the countryside in Nepal, there is a saying: `To get a girl is like watering a neighbor's tree. You have the trouble and expense of nurturing the plant but the fruits are taken by somebody else.'

Under feudalism a daughter is `useful' and `valuable' in her childhood years when she can do chores and serve the household. But according to such feudal thinking, it is not worth it to `invest' in a girl by giving her an education because she will just end up marrying and going off to live in, and serve, another household. I did meet a number of women who had been allowed to go to school, at least up until high school. But when I visited colleges in the cities, almost all of the students were men.

One afternoon, I watched Rachana studying, practicing her reading and writing, her eyes stuck to a dog-eared page in deep concentration. I thought about how this scene is being created in other guerrilla zones in Nepal. Young peasant women--illiterate, facing nothing but a back-breaking future--leaving their villages, taking up arms, learning to read and write and studying politics. I met many other women like Rachana--women who grew up angry about the way feudal society oppresses women and jumped at the chance to join the People's Army.

Everywhere I went, it seemed like the women had a particularly strong enthusiasm for this revolution. I saw it in the eyes of the old women who have suffered many years under the thumb of feudal relations--who now want to fight for a new kind of society. I heard it in the words of young women who never went to school--who told how excited they were the first time they carried out an armed action. I felt it in the determination and spirit of the women who have lost husbands, sons and daughters--but continue to shelter and aid the guerrillas, at the risk of their own lives.

These women really believe that the fight against women's oppression is woven into the fabric of this People's War. So when the armed struggle started in 1996, it was like the opening of a prison gate-- with thousands of women rushing forward to claim an equal place in the war. Some had to defy fathers and brothers. Some had to leave backward-thinking husbands. Others ran away from arranged marriages where parents had decided their fate. They all had to rebel against feudal traditions that treat women as inferior, that make women feel like their ideas don't matter.

Carrying the Story Forward: The Fight for Women Leaders

From talking to many women involved in the revolution in Nepal, I could see that the revolution was clearly challenging and changing people's feudal and patriarchal ideas about women's roles. But these transformations were clearly only beginning steps in a long battle to liberate women in Nepal.

When I interviewed Prachanda, leader of the CPN (Maoist), I asked him to talk about the problem of developing women leaders in a country where the oppression of women is so deeply built into the economic and social relations. He told me, `Before the Initiation, the woman question was not so seriously debated in our party. That was our weakness. And in our society, male domination, feudal relations have prevailed for a long time. In general terms we agreed, yeah, the woman question is important. As communists we know these things. But in a concrete sense, in a serious sense, I will say that before the Initiation we were not so serious on the woman question. And because we were not serious, therefore, many woman comrades were not at the forefront of the movement. There were some women sympathizers and some organizers, but there was not much effort to develop the women comrades. Then right after Initiation the question came up--it boldly came up. And especially in my experience, I was very thrilled when, during the first year after Initiation, I saw the sacrifice women were making in the main region, in the struggling zones--their militancy, their heroism, and their devotion. When I saw women masses come into the field, then we started to debate seriously the woman question.'

Prachanda went on to talk about different problems they confronted in getting women involved and developing their leadership. They were beginning to discuss organizing collective childcare. They encouraged young couples involved in the struggle to put off having children for several years so the women would not end up tied back to the home. And they were also trying to deal with illiteracy among women and the lack of birth control.

I thought back on this conversation when I came across a January 2003 article titled, `The Question of Women's Leadership in the People's War in Nepal' by Parvati, a member of the Central Committee of the CPN (Maoist) and the Head of their Women's Department. In this article, Parvati talks about the problems the Party is having in developing women's leadership. She says women have joined the PLA in extraordinary numbers and these women have shown much sacrifice and devotion but only a few women have been able to develop as leaders in the military struggle and women themselves are raising questions about the quality of their participation.

I found this discussion fascinating--because it was not a romanticized and unrealistic view of the role of women in the People's War and it candidly talked about persistent problems within the Party itself on this question.

According to Parvarti, when women get married and have children their participation usually decreases or stops--and so, she says, the institution of marriage has `robbed us of promising women leaders.' While men continue to participate in the PLA there are hardly any women who stay in the guerrilla ranks after they reach 25 or so.

Parvati says many things work against women getting involved and staying involved in the revolutionary struggle, especially in the PLA, which requires tremendous sacrifice. In the areas controlled by the Maoists there is struggle against institutions and ideas that prevent women from equal participation in society. Entrenched feudal tradition and ideology--like the view that women should not inherit or own land or that women should be restricted to particular tasks and not allowed to do other jobs--still exert a very powerful force, including among the revolutionaries themselves. Parvati says that there is sometimes covert or even overt pressure on women cadres to get married --and unmarried women draw suspicion from men as well as women. As a result, some women end up getting married against their wishes or before they are really ready to get married. And there is still a tendency for people to look down on women who are single, divorced, or have been married more than once.

In Nepalese society, there is a lot of pressure on women to bear children, especially sons. Even though this has been lessened to some extent by the revolution, there is still pressure on women to have at least one child. And women are still expected to take most if not full responsibility for taking care of the children.

Speaking about some women who have joined the revolution, Parvati writes: `With the birth of every child she sinks deeper into domestic slavery. In fact many women who have been active in People's War in Nepal are found to complain that having babies is like being under disciplinary action because they are cut off from the Party activities for a long period. In this way many bright aspiring communist women are at risk of being lost in oblivion, even after getting married to the comrades of their choice. This is specially so in white dominated areas [areas still dominated by the local traditional elite] where women seldom get support from the mass as well as from the Party to sustain themselves in their reproductive years.'

Parvati also raises the problem of `conservatism' in the Party which leads to `relegating women cadres to only women related work, thereby robbing them of the chance to develop in party policy matters and other fields.' And she points out how, spontaneously, women's issues may get talked about but not implemented. She says, `Often it is seen that the party does not actively intervene in the existing traditional division of labor between men and women whereby men take to mental work while women are left to do physical labor. This is also manifested in taking men and women as absolute equals by not being sensitive to women's special condition and their special needs. This becomes all the more apparent when women are menstruating or are in the reproductive period.'

Feudal family relations and obligations also exert their influence on how women look at themselves and how men and women relate to each other in the Party and in the PLA. Some women may view marriage and motherhood as a break in their political/military career. And Parvati points out that women cadre sometimes `follow the directives of the Party blindly without questioning, just as traditional women have been following their fathers when unmarried, and their husbands when married, and their sons when widowed.' She says this sometimes results in things like unplanned pregnancies and women following their husband's political line blindly.

In terms of men in the revolutionary movement, Parvati points out that while women have problems asserting themselves, men have problems with `relinquishing the privileged position bestowed on them by the patriarchal structure.' For example, men may formally accept women's leadership--but not really or fully accept and respect women leaders. She says men are sometimes `impatient with women's mistakes and general lack of skill in fields from which women have been excluded' and in general may not pay much attention to women's issues. There is also the tendency for men to revert to the traditional division of labor in which men do the `mental work' while women are relegated to menial tasks.

These are all real problems that have arisen in the course of trying to develop women leaders in the People's War. At the same time, the CPN (Maoist) has made progress on this front.

At the time of my trip, in 1999, many squads and platoons had women members. But there were very few women in leadership positions in the People's Army or the Party. Now, Parvati notes, there have been real advances in developing women leaders and recruiting women into the ranks of the revolution: As of 2003, there are several women in the Central Committee of the Party, dozens of women at the regional level, hundreds in the district levels, and several thousands in the area and cell levels in the Party. In the People's Liberation Army, there are many women commanders, vice commanders in different sections within the brigade, platoons, squads and militia. And in the United Revolutionary People's Council, the embryonic central government of the areas under Maoist control, there are four women out of 37 members. Women's participation in all levels of the People's Councils has also been made mandatory. In the Western Region of Nepal alone, there are 1,500 women's units. The total membership in the women's mass organization is 600,000. In the military field, there are 10 women section commanders in the main force, two women platoon commanders in the secondary force and several militia commanders in the basic force. And the team commander of the health section of a battalion force is a woman.


When I said goodbye to Rachana five years ago in the mountains of Rukum, neither of us knew what the future would bring. This year on International Women's Day, as the People's War enters its ninth year, I will be thinking of her and the women of Nepal who are taking us all into the future.