October 2, 2010
KANCHANPUR, NEPAL — At 42, Fulbasa Rana has 11 children.
Rana is a member of the Dalit caste, considered untouchable by the upper castes here. She is living in a temporary camp for newly freed bonded laborers in Kanchanpur, Nepal’s western district that borders India. She says she will continue to have children. She describes it as a compulsion. She is waiting for a son.
With 11 daughters, all no more than two years apart, Rana says her husband, Badhuram Rana, is giving her one more chance to give him a son.
She says her biggest worry is the future burden of feeding 12 children. “My husband has many times told me that it is his duty to feed our children. We gave many tries for a son. But still we don’t have,” she says.
Mina Dagaura, 35, lives in the same camp. She gave birth to seven daughters, all one year apart. Two of her daughters died as infants. She too asked her husband if they could try again for a son.
Thuli Musahar has five daughters. She is pregnant for the sixth time. While her husband, Mane Musahar, says he did not pressure her to have another baby, she says she desperately wants a son. “I will continue giving birth until our family gets a son,” she says as she braids the hair of her seven-year-old daughter. He youngest daughter, 1, sleeps next to her in a bamboo crib.
For many families living in Nepal’s Terai district in the southern foothills of the Himalaya, having many children in hopes of having sons is common. The saying, ‘boys are treasure and girls are trouble,’ is a way of life among people in Nepal’s rural villages, where more than 80 percent of Nepal’s population resides. “Daughters are like water that splashes out of the family and cannot be gotten back after marriage,” says Rana’s husband, Badhuram. Here, a girl’s relationship and responsibility to her family ends when she gets married, while boys carry many familial responsibilities throughout their lives. Rana says she worries if she does not have a son, no one will look after her as she ages and after she dies. As many organizations ramp up public health messages and family planning efforts here, new population data suggests that Nepal’s population is growing faster than any other in Asia. Experts say the rise in population may be due to the rapid procreation couples perform in hopes of having a son.
Boys Play an Important Role in Life & Death
Families in this rural, impoverished region openly admit their strong preference for sons. A phenomenon known as “daughter aversion,” and its companion phenomenon “son preference,” remains in powerfully in effect here.
“Sons are highly desired for their social, symbolic, and economic value. But daughter aversion, fuelled primarily by the perceived economic burden of daughters is playing a larger role in fertility decision-making than son preference,” says Nepal’s renowned women rights activist and senior advocate Sapana Malla Pradhan.
Daughter aversion is a result many things, mainly financial concern. But cultural and religious practices that mandate boys play more important family roles compound the desire for sons. “Son preference is attributed to patriarchal family systems. Boys are regarded as important because they look after property, care for parents when they get old and perform ritual duties when the parents die,” says Sharmila Karki, a women’s rights activist and president of Jagaran Nepal, a local NGO working for women rights.
“There is a tradition and religious belief in Nepal that a son can only offer Pinda,” says Karki.
In Hindu tradition, when a parent dies the son offers Pinda, or cooked rice balls, to his departed parent on the 11th day after cremation. Only then is one said to be able to move on to the next world.
“The ritual should be offered by the sons only, wherein lies the main problem,” says Karki. “This tradition undermines the importance of daughters.” So many Hindu families, the primary religion in Nepal, believe if they do not have a son, they will not be able to move on to their next life.
Devi Dagaura, 30, of the same settlement, has four daughters and says she too desperately wants a son. “I have to get a son so that we will be taken care in the old age. My daughters will go to other houses when they will get married,” she says.
The concepts of son preference and daughter aversion are simple to recognize. Six weeks ago, when Krishna Nepali of the Pakwadi village in the western district, finally had a son after having four daughters, he threw a party for the entire village. No one here celebrates the birth of a daughter.
Rana says people in this area knowingly treat their sons and daughters differently. “Many parents love their sons, but not their daughters. If a son doesn’t return home on time at the end of a particular day, they worry. If he is sick, they treat him. But the opposite is the case for a daughter.”
Family Planning Services Increase as Population Increases
While no official data exists to measure the son preference phenomenon, new efforts are underway to increase family planning options in Nepal’s most remote areas. Most villagers in the Kanchanpur camp say they have never heard of family planning.
Rama Tharu, 48, also lives in the poverty-stricken camp and says she has never heard of a family planning program. “These services don’t exist here,” says the mother of seven.
Her neighbor, Rita Terar, 34, begot a son after having four daughters. Now Terar says she and her husband Dil, are content and will not have another child. “Since we are a poor family and we are struggling to feed four children, we don’t want more now,” says Dil Terar. When asked if he was familiar with family planning and contraceptives, he replied, “What is it? I don’t know.”
As Nepal’s annual population growth rate is 2.6 percent, one of the highest rates in Asia, the country’s National Planning Commission has estimated that population is growing at the rate of one birth every 54 seconds, 66 every hour, 1,290 every day, and 470,000 every year. Daughter aversion and the desire to quickly try again for a son may be linked to Nepal’s fast-paced population growth. The population surge is compounded by the limited public health messages related to family planning and conception that reach the rural areas.
Very few organizations have taken on the quest to inform rural women about reproductive rights and options, as they face many cultural and social barriers.
“Rural women are even forced to work as daily-wagers to meet their hand-to-mouth problem after doing their household chores. The triple burden of domestic work, labor outside home and giving birth to a child, weakens the health of women. They are unaware of their reproductive rights,” says Karki.
“These rural areas have no access to information about women’s rights and human rights. Most of the rights activists are not there in remote areas. The rural areas that do not have access to information and lack of communication means like radio, TV, have no idea on the rights of women,” she says.
New government public health messaging is promoting the slogan, “Small family, happy family,” through various media channel across the country, but very few, if any of those messages will reach the villagers of Kanchanpur.
“It is an irony that women’s rights issues are only raised in the city areas,” Karki says.
While daughter aversion is most prevalent in rural parts of the country, it does exist in Kathmandu, the capital city too. “Even some educated and well-off women still want sons. It will take time to see long-held traditional ideas about the lesser value of girls erode,” says attorney Pradhan.