Kamala Gautam, GPI

Nepali Women Seek to Balance Increased Economic Participation, Traditional Domestic Duties


Article Highlights


Nepalese women are increasingly well-educated, and nearly 50 percent are participating in formal economic activities.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Pratima Pokharel, 65, a resident of a rural district in Nepal’s Eastern region, coughs hard.  

“My back hurts,” she says. “I suffer shortness of breath whenever I try to speak.”

But instead of resting, the thin woman continues to cut vegetables in her kitchen in Sankhuwasabha district. She breathes heavily.

“What can I do, sister?” she asks, her hand on her chest. “I wonder who would do as much hard work as I have to do. Doctors tell me that I am paying the price of my hard work.”

She married her husband at the age of 15. She was in grade four. A life of hard work followed, she says.

Pokharel gave birth to three children. As she raised them, she also managed to attain a Bachelor of Arts from Padma Kanya Multiple Campus, the women’s college under Tribhuvan University.

Impressed by her perseverance and hard work, a former teacher asked her to teach at a school in her village. Two years later, Pokharel earned a promotion to principal.

Her responsibilities at work increased. But her responsibilities at home didn’t decrease.

When her children were small, Pokharel says she used to wake up at 2 a.m. every day to feed them and to massage them with oil to improve their circulation. She then moved on to other domestic chores, such as cleaning, washing clothes and cooking for the family.

After completing these duties, she walked for 30 minutes to reach the school by 10 a.m.

Her school day was busy too, she says. She had no time to sit and returned home tired. But she had to rush to the kitchen to prepare a meal for her family.

“I think I am strong, physically and mentally, to bear the workload in both fronts,” Pokharel says. “Otherwise, I would have been dead by now.”

Pokharel retired in 2008 because of respiratory and back problems after serving as principal for 23 years.

“The situation would improve if and when segregation of work according to gender is not predetermined,” she says.

Pokharel’s husband, Mukunda Pokharel, acknowledges that professional women have a difficult life. But he says that because of gender roles in society, men can’t help women with domestic duties even if they want to.

Women who work outside the home in Nepal struggle to balance their jobs with their domestic duties. Doctors warn that grueling work schedules hurt women’s health. Local men say that even if they want to help their wives with household chores, strict gender roles prevent them from doing so. Some couples are moving from multigenerational to nuclear households to distance themselves from traditional gender roles, as social activists ask community leaders to emphasize sharing household work.

Increased education levels for women and structural changes in the economy reducing dependency on agriculture have increased economic opportunities for women in Nepal, according to the 2011 Nepal Population Report by the Ministry of Health and Population. Women’s participation in formal economic activities increased from 35 percent in 1971 to 83 percent in 2004, becoming on par with that of men.

Yet household work still falls disproportionately on women.

Shova Gautam, a freelance journalist and human rights activist, says that strict gender roles govern household work in Nepal.

“In the Nepalese society, the work division begins right in the family of birth,” she says. “Such divisions later on create negative impact on the society.”

Geeta Bhandari, 35, works for Alliance Insurance Company on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.  She says there isn’t a single day that she isn’t in a hurry to reach the office after finishing her work at home.

In addition to cooking two meals, she must also prepare afternoon snacks for her children. She also has to help them with their schoolwork because she says her husband prefers not to.

If she returns home late from work, she has to rush straight to the kitchen without changing her clothes. Bhandari says her husband won’t eat if she only prepares the food. She also needs to serve him.

“Even a machine requires time to rest after work,” she says. “And we are just human beings.”  

Ganga Laxmi Pradhan, a housewife in Kathmandu, says that women work two shifts.

“A woman and a man work equally in the offices,” she says. “But, when they enter home, the woman goes to the kitchen with the grocery bag, whereas men lie on the bed and take rest. In such a situation, who else would suffer more than the woman?”

Bina Shrestha, vice president of the Women’s Committee within the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, says that women have to spend about two hours during the morning and the evening to prepare food for the family. They also need to spend another three hours daily doing other household chores.

But calculations of women’s working hours include only those performed outside the home, Shrestha says. Society must also evaluate the work that women do inside the house.

“The seven hours’ workload that women bear at home is equivalent to the work done by a wage earner,” Shrestha says. “In Kathmandu, such a worker is paid 500 rupees ($6) per day.”

The stress of multiple workloads tires women, which affects their productivity at work, Shrestha says. Therefore, although they have as much capacity as men, they can't show it in their performance. 

Women are under stress because of their workloads at home and in the office, says Dr. Phanindra Prasad Baral, the medical superintendent at Doti District Hospital in Nepal’s Far-Western region. Stress causes women to suffer from physical exhaustion, backbone pain, depression and respiratory problems, as they are constantly exposed to smoke while cooking. They are also prone to uterine complications because they do not get much time to rest after childbirth.

Male members of the household should help the female members with domestic work to create a balance, Shrestha says.

But men say that even if they want to help, they can’t because of strict gender roles.

Parents enlist daughters in the household chores but do not allow their sons to do the same, says Sanjaya Joshi, a retired army officer who lives in Kathmandu. Because of this discrimination, boys grow up thinking that they shouldn’t do household work. 

But Joshi, who is married, says he does help his wife with duties in the home.

Sabitri Adhikari, an administration officer at Everest Bank in Kathmandu, says that when a woman gets married and moves to her husband’s house, the responsibility of the domestic chores falls to her. It is not socially appropriate for husbands to help their wives with such work, so men don't help women even if they want to.

For women who live with their extended families, their workload is even more, Adhikari says. Additionally, if a woman works outside the home, she has to bear a double workload, which creates mental and physical stress.

Adhikari’s husband helps her in the kitchen. She says she is lucky compared with her other female friends, whose husbands don’t help them with any domestic chores.

“One in 100 women is lucky to get a considerate husband who would help and support the wife in the domestic chores,” she says.

Gautam says many men help their wives only inside the house for fear of the neighbors knowing about it.

Saroj Neupane, 60, a retired teacher living in Bhaktapur, a town adjoining Kathmandu, says his neighbors would be concerned about his wife’s health if they saw him doing domestic chores. He says their questions would embarrass him.

Helping one’s wife with household work is a far-fetched concept, says Shyam Niraula, a 30-year-old man in Kathmandu’s middle class, especially considering the taboo aspects of other more basic household interactions. For example, most Nepalese families consider it improper for newlyweds to talk to each other in front of their parents.

Even after being married for more than a year, Niraula says that it’s awkward to talk to his wife in front of his parents and relatives.

Social activist Rajiv Ghimire, 50, says the same was true for him when he got married 25 years ago.

“I talked to my wife only when nobody was around,” he says. “Helping her in the household chores was taken as a shameful act. This is so, even now in the joint families.”

He attributes these restrictions to men’s dominance over women in Nepalese society. As time passes, most families gradually ease these restrictions. But some couples are hesitant to speak to each other in front of their elders even after years of marriage.

Gautam suggests counseling sessions for the men and women to do away with such orthodox beliefs in society.

“Men and women should both work inside and outside their homes,” she says. “Why should women alone do the household chores? Every Nepalese family should start from their houses to do away with such superstitious practices to bring about good examples gradually in the society.”

In order to distance themselves from traditional gender roles, some couples are distancing themselves from their extended families.

Sunita Tamang, 32, originally from India, married a man from Kathmandu. Both worked outside the home, and her husband helped her in the kitchen and with laundry, Tamang says.

But they lived with his family, who did not approve of this conduct. His sisters and parents accused him of neglecting them as he spent more time with his wife while helping her. So Tamang and her husband moved out of their extended family’s home to live independently.

Ghimire says community leaders should drive this process in erasing gender roles.

“If the persons having the leading role in the society,” Ghimire says, “such as teachers, medical doctors, religion preachers, start helping their wives in the domestic chores, it will set examples in the society for reforms.”