Nation in limboNepal’s social transition demands as much attention as is accorded to its political transition
While much ink has been spilt over Nepal’s political transition, the nation’s ongoing social transition has seldom been accorded the same importance. As a by-product of migration, multiparty democracy, various rights-based movements, a decade-long armed conflict, and the post-agreement political environment, the country is undergoing a dramatic social transition. In particular, there are five different issues that have made this social transition even more complicated.
Migration and empowerment
The first factor that has complicated Nepal’s social transition is international labour migration. Though it has resulted in positive socio-economic changes among thousands of poor and lower-middle class Nepali families, it has also promoted large-scale internal migration from hilly regions to Tarai districts and from rural Tarai to urban centres. This has had adverse impacts on socio-economic and demographic structures as well as the development processes of rural areas. Family disintegration, rise in divorce rates, isolated lives of old people, changing sexual behaviours of husbands and wives in the absence of their spouse for a long time, and undisciplined and misled kids in the absence of their guardians are some of the key social costs of international labour migration. Even so, while the government and non-government sectors have implemented some programmes to ensure safe and better-managed labour migration, there is a complete absence of programmes to address its social costs.
Second, the partial success of women empowerment has also complicated Nepal’s social transition. As a result of successful governmental and non-governmental women empowerment programmes for the last 25 years, a significant number of women from all over the country have now gained a certain level of confidence to advocate for their rights, raise voices against the violence they face within their family and community, and resist patriarchal values that curb their freedom. However, in the absence of a strong social protection mechanism, women’s lives become even more vulnerable after exposing and reporting cases of violence for legal remedy. Extremely lengthy and expensive judicial and semi-judicial processes, lack of interim relief and psychosocial support programmes, and the lack of life security assurance from the state have thus discouraged women from reporting cases of violence. Due to the existing political system and social structure, women are dubious about their actions against violence and other forms of discrimination. This is a paradox of women empowerment programmes.
Youth, duties, openness
The third issue concerns adequate management of the youth population and their constructive engagement in civic, political, and economic affairs. Issues of the youth related to their livelihood, quality of life, personal development, security, and ways to ensure their participation and representation in civic and political life remain under-addressed. This has made their lives directionless. The rise in international youth migration for work and other purposes is an indication of the failure of the government to address their needs. Further, two new youth issues have emerged—a lack of personal, social, and professional crisis management abilities and their inability to handle information. Youth involvement in armed violence and social crimes, acid attacks on women, rapes, suicide, and indifference to civic duties and responsibilities indicates the mindset of one segment of the Nepali youth. While another group of youths has truly devoted their lives to politics, social affairs, and economic development, they remain few in number and are easily outnumbered.
Fourth, while the rights discourse has been adequately established in Nepali society, people have yet to fulfil their duties. Unionisation in every segment of social life has played a great role in enabling people to engage in collective bargaining and in claiming rights. People, however, are yet to realise their duties partly because of the dominance of the rights discourse, but more importantly, due to a lack of civic or value-based education.
Finally, people in Nepal have an increasing desire to be part of an open society, but lack proper orientation on the norms and values that are required to be a responsible member of an open society. Thus, the transition from a closed society to an open one does not seem very smooth; rather, it has created many problems that are linked with issues mentioned above.
Social transition, despite being an important agenda of the post-conflict transition, has yet to receive adequate attention from the government, political parties, donor community, media, and civil society. There are no programmes that focus on addressing the social transition. The international community has made significant investments and shown great interest in addressing political transition-related issues, but very little attention has been paid to defining the social transition as an important area of intervention. The media and civil society also have not made an effort to inform concerned actors about the essence of active intervention for a smooth social transition. Social stability initiatives have been highly subjugated by political stability initiatives. Most of these actors seem to strongly believe that stabilising politics can solve all problems in the country.
Yet, political stability is not possible without social stability. For that, four important things need to be done. First, a broad national vision must address the social transition. This should entail the identification and prioritisation of key issues that are important for social stability, their incorporation as top policy priorities, and the allocation of an adequate budget to address the issues. Further, donors, civil society, and media, should be encouraged to concentrate their resources and energies towards conducting programmes to address the social transition.
Second, social stability initiatives must go in parallel with political stability process, as both are interrelated. There needs to be proportional distribution of resources from the government, donors, and civil society for such initiatives.
Third, the transition to social stability should not be a project that lasts for a few years and in a few locations. Rather, it should be long-term, nationwide, and service-driven initiative, where people actually learn to cope well with changes in society.
Finally and most importantly, social stability cannot be achieved unless there is a combination of strong political will, sincere bureaucratic effort, civil society momentum, and’ genuine resource commitments from donors.
Bhattarai is a Kathmandu-based independent scholar