By Sahara Basnet  

Nepal government has proposed a new rule that requires women under the age of 40 to produce proof of consent from their family or procure recommendation from local level authorities for them to be eligible to travel abroad on tourist visa.

As the new progresses, amid much backlash from the public, the government has clarified that such conditions would only apply to women traveling alone for the first time to Gulf or African countries. The clarification added that the amendment had only been proposed and not yet enforced.

Nevertheless, this move has been stated as an extra coat of protection for women traveling abroad under the pretense that women under the age of 40 are at high risk of getting trafficked, exploited, and even hospitalized in foreign countries without any means to pay for their expenses.

Human trafficking is and has always been a major issue in Nepal. According to Nepal’s National Rights Body, 1.5 million Nepalis are vulnerable to human trafficking, out of which 35,000 people are trafficked every year.

Victims of trafficking are often engaged in difficult and dangerous forms of foreign employment such as child labour and adult entertainment. The issue of Nepali women being trafficked grabbed international attention when Anuradha Koirala, the founder of Maiti Nepal, won the CNN hero award in 2010 for her works in rescuing over 12,000 women from sex traffickers.

Though the government’s intention behind proposing this new rule might be intended towards showcasing its vigilance in ending human trafficking, female citizens of the country however cannot help but get a whiff of patriarchy from this.

Patriarchy, as we know, is a system of society or government in which men predominantly hold the power over women. Traditionally, patriarchy stems from the idea of biological determinism, where men are considered superior among the genders.

Patriarchy preaches that men are naturally dominant (strong saviours), while women are naturally subordinate (weak and in need of saving). Such domination has resulted in men being seen as the primary protectors and guiders of women, while women are perceived as primary caregivers.

This concept of gender-based hierarchy has resulted in unequal division of spaces and male supremacy throughout history.

Sylvia Walby a prominent feminist author, in her book “Theorizing Patriarchy”, defines patriarchy as “as a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress, and exploit women”.

She also identifies two distinct forms of patriarchy — private and public patriarchy where gender roles are reinforced primarily by the family and secondarily by the state. While private patriarchy is conducted within a household and reinforced by individual patriarchs, public patriarchy is a collective appropriation.

Public patriarchy is enacted in the public sphere where women’s rights are systemically limited when it comes to decision making. Thus, resulting in laws being passed on behalf of women, which do not reflect their collective interest.

One such example public patriarchy already exists in Nepal in the form of discriminatory citizenship law which bars women from passing on their nationality to their children without the presence of a man.

Now, the proposal of this new law further cements the existence of public patriarchy in Nepal as women under the age of 40 are robbed of their freedom of mobility. Perhaps the final straw is the fact that such consent (from family and the government) becomes unnecessary if the woman is “accompanied” by either her husband or a family member.

Nepal has traditionally been a patriarchal country where daughters are till date discriminated by birth with a strong preference for sons. Article 18 of the Constitution of Nepal ensures Right to Equality, which certainly cannot be upheld if gendered laws come into existence.

And not to forget, Nepal is a part of many international treaties that ensure protection of women’s rights. One of the main being Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which ensures the elimination of gender-biased laws that disadvantage women.

If this new patriarchal rule on women under 40 comes into effect, even if they limit the rule to first time travelers, it still would be in direct violation of CEDAW. Furthermore, it will violate the Universal Declaration of Human rights as well since the law hinders an individual’s freedom of mobility to and from their country.

This new proposed rule, in parallel existence of various other national and international fundamental rights, will ensure that the formal rights of women are unrealized in Nepal. This move not only marginalizes women, but it specifically targets those who decide to “step outside” the patriarchal norms of what is considered an acceptable way for a woman to travel.

Unfortunately, it is not surprising that such international treaties (although signed) and constitutional provisions are blatantly ignored by Nepal government. Though the existence of gendered citizenship laws has been a shining example of how public patriarchy unapologetically prevails in Nepal, implementing this new proposed rule will be a new low for a country which likes to boast the fact of having a woman president.

In conclusion, Nepali women have fought tooth and nail to bring changes in Nepal’s discriminatory legal provisions. Nepali women have ventured into every field of the public sphere and created a positive impact. However, deep-rooted patriarchy still exists in the country, and this patriarchal travel restriction is a clear example of it.

Having discriminatory laws for different genders sets the tone for gender-based discrimination to be formally accepted in the country. Constitution and signing of international treaties such as CEDAW holds no weight if they are overridden.

The undertone of Nepali men’s belief that women are an inferior gender who need to be “saved” can clearly be seen in the proposed rule. Especially given the fact that once a woman is accompanied by her husband or a male family member, such preposterous need for consent from the government becomes obsolete.

Amid this facade, the fact that men are also trafficked is entirely discounted by this new rule, and that’s an overlooked injustice. And not to forget the fact that the rule bravely assumes that women are never trafficked by their own husbands or family members.

A challenge to such gender-biased laws can only occur when the concept of men being the caretaker and protector of women gets dismantled. Only when patriarchy collapses in the public sector can there be complete fulfillment of women’s rights and achievement of gender equity.

The controversial (proposed) rule is sure to bring a snowball effect of multiple women’s march and protests in coming days. For those who are quick to discount the existence of institutional patriarchy and dismiss the argument that women are needed in positions of power for the betterment of other women, I have but one question — would this rule ever have been proposed if the one in the decision making seat was a woman under the age of 40?

Sahara was crowned Miss Nepal Asia Pacific International in 2017 and is the Co-founder of Asha Social Initiative, an organization that works to provide sanitation facilities in rural schools of Nepal to reduce gender barriers to end education and promote female education.