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Women and the Economy: The Key Issues

Meena Acharya


Economic and social issues are closely intertwined, one reinforcing the other. For example the key issue of access to land for women is closely linked to the socially determined inheritance rights and religiously ritualized need to give away daughters from oneís own clan to some other clan. Sexuality of women is a social property and an "object" of negotiation for the giving and taking clans. Her access to resources is conditional by her sexuality (see Bennett, 1883 for details on this issue.) Parents prefer to spend on sonís education rather than on that of a daughter because socially sons are responsible for parentsí maintenance in old age while daughters are perceived as temporary guests in natal households (CERID, 1986 and 1986b; CBS, 1996). Women cannot participate in politics on equal footing with men because of both social constraints, lack of mobility and access to resources (Acharya, 1994b). On the other hand womenís progress is limited also because of their limited representation in the political decision making levels. With lack of alternative avenues of employment and access to resources as also because of the social dichotomy of exploitation of their sexuality and severe social standards imposed on their sexual behavior, many women are forced to enter commercial sex work for their survival. Therefore it is rather dangerous to compartmentalize womenís problems into sectoral issues and to view them in isolation. As such, the following analysis is only an attempt to limit the scope of the current paper rather than give a complete account of womenís economic problems in Nepal.

Within this limitation, the major issues related to women in the economic field include their limited access to productive assets- the land and property, credit and modern avenues of knowledge and information; concentration of women in low productivity agriculture and high and increasing work burden without concomitant increase in access to resources, child labor, lack of access to training, technology and education; concen-tration at lower levels jobs, poor working conditions and lack of child care facilities at work places; trade unionís neglect of womenís problems; risk to personal security and sexual harassment in the formal sector and low level of technology, limited market access, low income and progressive loss of proprietorship in informal sector. A problem to be noted is also the declining economic activity rates of urban women, probably signaling the "domesti-cation of women."

Women entrepreneurs face special problems of resources scarcity, low risk taking capacity and marketing access. Moreover, the is a severe dearth of information on womenís employment and earning patterns, problems, grievances and aspirations in the formal sector including tourism and other services. The recorded economic activity rates under reports womenís work and contributions to household survival.


Access to Resources

Womenís access to land and property is derived through her marriage relationship. A married woman has no right in her parental property. She gets an equal share in the husbandís property together with her son, if she remains faithful to him and his clan. This is serverís limitation on womenís access to all productive assets.

Marriage becomes the overwhelming factor determining all her life options. This reinforced by all round social norms and legal structures, every thing else is secondary to marriage. Single women, even with many children are not given land in resettlement areas, even if such households may be among the poorest of the poor. They may not claim any tenancy rights. Although many husbands may keep property in the name of wives, such women many not make any transaction in the property without the consent of her husband and sons, etc. This limitation is not applied to husbands and the sons. Households get access to community resources such as forests through household heads who are usually men. Women may have the derived user rights as long as her husband does not abandon her. When a husband brings another wife and leaves her, which is constantly recurring even in the Nepalese social milieu, she looses all access to community property as well. Such processes are hard to capture by data, since no data are collected on polygamy. It is illegal to have more than one wife, but women get no property on divorce and so a access to resources. Two major indicators of such inequality are access to credit and increasing involvement of women in commercial sex work for survival. A detailed discussion of the second symptom is beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless it is pertinent to note that lack of alternative avenues of livelihood is one of the major causes why women get into commercial sex work, why parents sell their daughters into dubious marriages and sex bazaar (See New Era, 1997).

Access to Credit

It has been discussed widely that womenís access to credit is limited because both formal and informal credit institutions are geared to funding property owners. All formal credit institutions seek tangible collateral from loan and women are effectively sidelined from institutional credit since women have little access to the inherited property. The village moneylenders are also interested more in earning high interest or acquiring the debtorís property rather than financing people in need.

Table 1: Borrowings from Formal & Informal Sources

Source of Credit

All Households







Agricultural Development Bank




Commercial Bank












Friends & Relatives












Merchants Traders/Others








Source: Improving Access of Women to Formal Credit Facilities in Nepal, IIDS, 1992.

Womenís access to institutional credit is further restricted by their confinement to household activities and lower level of awareness and educational attainment. As such they are more prone to fall prey to the exploitative conditions of the village moneylenders than their male counter-parts. Nepal Rural Credit Review Study (NRCRS) by Nepal Rastra Bank in 1991/92 revealed that of the total female headed sample households almost 35 percent had borrowed from one or the other sources compared to 39 percent male headed households. However, among the borrowing