Behind the mask of happinessIn many Nepali households, men continue to make financial decisions, including how women’s earnings are spent.
Women outnumber men in Nepal by 2.32 million, according to the 2021 census. The labour force participation of women has risen in recent years due to increased awareness about their education and empowerment. This rise could also be credited to technological advancement and increased demand for clerical work, which women mostly undertake. However, the unemployment rate for women has consistently risen since 2014, with the data showing a staggering rise to 4.93 percent in 2021.
According to the World Bank, Nepal’s female labour force participation rate in 2021 is 78.69 percent (economically active and non-economically active women aged 15 and over). This data, however, doesn’t reflect better economic standing for the nation. We can infer that many Nepali women are not employed in active income-generating sectors. While this by no means is an attempt to derail the works that do not generate income, it is crucial to understand why women are unemployed in such a large number. We, especially, need to look at the statistics of unemployed married women. The status hasn’t changed much since 2019 when only 22 percent of working-age women were employed.
According to the 2011 National Census, the literacy rate for women in Nepal is 48.84 percent. This data is detrimental to a country that needs to boost its economic growth. We anticipate a demographic dividend and hope for a trained workforce and resources to contribute to the economy. Despite so many promises of women’s empowerment, we have failed to address the root cause of decades of subjugation and socioeconomic disparity: female illiteracy.
Many Nepali married women claim to be homemakers, a predicament common to much of South Asia. Looking at the big picture, the World Bank reports that global labour force participation for women is slightly higher than 50 percent, compared to 80 percent for men. Women are less likely to work in formal jobs than men and have fewer opportunities for business expansion or career advancement.
Women earn less when working, which is not limited to South Asia. According to a research analysis done by the Pew Research Centre on the enduring grip of the gender pay gap, in 2022, women in the United States earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. That was roughly the same as in 2002 when they received 80 cents on the dollar. A report by Nepal Jobs Diagnostics shows that almost all Nepali women work, but the majority are unpaid. A significant number of women, after marriage, stay home and involve themselves in household chores without being active earners.
Given that, we also can’t just say that homemakers don’t work. They work harder than women in a 9-5 job. Women nurture a family, from caring for the elderly to raising children. Homemakers multi-task every minute of their lives with no financial incentive. They are unpaid employees who work nonstop with nothing like bonuses, vacations or promotions to look forward to.
Still, there are many unanswered questions. With so much dynamism and potential to contribute as an active human resource, why do women remain homemakers? Or do they even have a choice?
Even if women go out and work, there is a high chance their calibre will be limited to menial jobs that underpay and exploit them. According to a 2021 Asia Foundation study, 37 percent of companies in Nepal reduced their women employees’ salaries, with 58 percent imposing a 50 percent compensation reduction. Furthermore, 5 percent of organisations gave women employees 100 percent wage cuts.
Most of the women in Nepali households are trapped in a social construct where men make financial decisions, and even women’s earnings are spent on men’s will. This might initially come off as infringing on someone’s right to spend, but the underlying layers reflect decades of systemic subjugation, rampant sexism and misogyny. The patriarchy that drives the conventional archetypes of gender discrimination becomes enormous when it comes to financial decision-making. This is how power dynamics play out inside a household as money governs authority. With the monetary reigns in the male member’s hand, women succumb to a vicious cycle of manipulation and abuse.
Sufferings of homemakers
While this might be true for unemployed women or those who earn a minimum salary, even the women in affluent families put up with domestic violence to maintain their social and financial security. Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is a social problem that has plagued almost all strata of women. According to studies, roughly one-quarter (26 percent) of ever-married women have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional IPV, with physical IPV being the most common (23 percent).
Also, women from upper-and middle-class households are more reluctant to report cases of abuse under Nepal’s culture of silence on domestic violence. Many women misunderstand that violence is always physical. Domestic violence accounts for more than 75 percent of crimes against women, children, and senior individuals. Nepal’s fiscal year 2020-21 recorded 14,232 domestic violence instances, 2,532 rape cases, and 27 cases of abortion, out of all the cases registered. Abuse, sadly, does not always manifest to physical violence. The constant stress, pressure, and judgment women face as a homemaker are enough to shred their self-esteem into pieces.
In 1976, the Social Practices Reform Act criminalised the dowry system in Nepal (2033). However, the practice persisted. Nepal passed Evil Social Customs and Practices Abolition Act in 2009, making dowry illegal. However, women continue to suffer from in-laws due to a lack of dowry. There have been 148 incidences of dowry-related violence between 2017 and 2021. Violence over dowries has frequently been fatal, particularly in Tarai districts. This results in psychological abuse, behavioural torture, and much toxicity.
Women constitute 51.48 percent of those killed, while 15.35 percent are homemakers. In neighbouring India, suicide is the leading cause of death among women aged 15-39, with 41,493 cases reported in 2019, the reasons being marital problems, domestic abuse, and financial and economic disparity.
Marital rape is a punishable crime according to Section 219 of the 2017 National Criminal Code and subsections (1,4,5). In Kirtipur alone, a study on marital rape and related social demographic factors linked to gynaecological problems found that 194 (53.6 percent) out of 362 women suffered marital rape, either daily or occasionally. If a homemaker decides to talk about marital rape, our society dismisses the notion often without even considering the harm it does to a woman.
A woman is expected to “ask” her husband to do any work. He needs to “allow” her to pursue her interests. Her decisions are often invalidated because she doesn’t deal with “the outer world”. The glass ceilings that the feminist movements are trying to break so desperately have become glass windows that enslave homemakers inside their own homes. They are expected to “take care” of the family and always “compromise” because wasn’t that the social agreement all along? One goes to earn money, and the other never gets to see it.
It is unfortunate that the same people who preach decorum of a homemaker call her out on every occasion possible by moral policing. If a homemaker decides to make Tiktok because she is exhausted being an on-call housekeeper, the internet floods with rage and insults on how homemakers shouldn’t be doing that.
Compared to highly developed countries, evident discrimination, abuse, and economic exploitation are common among homemakers in developing countries like Nepal. However, since socio-cultural constructs drive our society, women are compelled to be complacent homemakers; they are often perceived as contented with their familial and social responsibilities. However, with the persistence of gender norms and cultural regression, it is essential to contemplate their true happiness.