Challenges to Women's Empowerment in South Asia


The dissertation has highlighted the general concept of women empowerment in the South Asian context and in particular in the Nepal context. Literature review has found that the theories and concept of women empowerment, such as presented by Kabeer (1999) could not find place in South Asian countries. Literature review found that women abilities to freely practice individual choices are dampened by the existence of gender based social issues, such inequality, violence, or child marriage. This view is supported by the finding of UNICEF, South Asia, which reported that deprivation of education and forced child marriage, which tend to keep the girls backward. Similar social issues, such as domestic violence, forcefully place women at a backward position. These findings are generally reported in the literature and show that there are certain intersectional experiences of Dalit women where they are not disadvantaged by their gender but also their caste and how this prevents them from being empowered in their society and community.


Rowland (1997) observed that there are personal, rational and collective dimensions to empowerment. Literature review has found steps undertaken by international, national and non-government organisations that reflect the three dimensions of empowerment. For instance UN Women (1995) mentioned the 1995 Beijing Declaration that reflects policies and programmes aimed to advance and empower women could be an example for collective empowerment. Policies and programmes, mentioned by Klasen and Pieters (2015) and ILO (2017), which enabled women from South Asian countries to access education and potential employment opportunities could be an example for rational empowerment. Another example is the observation made by Reecha Upadhyay about urban women in India, who are more educated and have better employment opportunity. Women with better access to education and employment opportunities have lesser chances of facing social issues, such as domestic violence of discrimination. Therefore, empowering women to enable them have better education and more employment opportunities are sign of personal and rational empowerment. When concerned authorities take steps in the form of national policies and measures, it shows a collective political will to empower women in weaker position. However, literature review demonstrates that there is a disparity in the implementation of policies that could advance collective empowerment. The example is that of the analytical overview of Reecha Upadhyay, who found that women is rural India are less empowered in terms of access to education, employment and ability to face social issues themselves. Consequently, they lack the ability to make decisions. This situation also demonstrates that the measures undertaken by the government at the state, national, local and institution level are not implemented effectively.

In context of Nepal, literature review found that the issue of gender inequality majorly affects women. They depend on men and this has majorly contributed to this issue (Luitel, 2001). This supports the observation of Sharma (ibid), who stated that the Marxist framework of women’s empowerment ignores the economic dependency of women on man. The structural view that women and men are of similar category, thus, cannot hold in respect to the issue of women empowerment. Not only between men and women, women as a category in itself are attached with issue of inequality. This is rightly observed by Caplan (1985) that higher class\ middle class women are more given priority in the movement for women empowerment. It is for these reasons that the application of the concept of personal, rational and collective dimensions to empowerment, as presented by Rowland (1997), may come in practical use to women empowerment, especially those women exposed to weak economic and social structure. Suggestion by Acharya (2008) to give employment and economic advancement opportunity to women in the industrial sector may be practical, especially to this specific category of women. These measures may diminish poverty and inequality amongst those women in weaker position and the society at large.

In context of Nepal, literature review found that there is lack of social will towards empowering girls and women. Comparing between rural and urban women, urban women have better access to education than rural counterparts. They have better access to economic opportunities and health care. This is supported by Schultz, who observed that Nepal boys are given more priority in food and health care than to girls. It represents a social problem where sons are more valued than the daughters (Leone et al. 2003). This disparity is also reflected in the field of education (Waszak et al 2003). Women are generally forced to stay at home and do household work. This situation of gender inequality and lack of social will to empower women is also a reflection of lack of political will to encourage social will, which would reduce the inequality amongst men and women or boys and girls.

The lack of political will could be gauged from the fact that many programmes regarding raise awareness on various women’s issues, trainings, focused groups, workshops are being run by non- governmental organisations (NGOs). However, the work of these NGOs could shape future government laws and policies. For example, NGOS, such as the Women’s foundation of Nepal, are working at the government level to bring laws empowering to women enter politics (CEDAW, Nepal 2003). It is not that the government is lagging behind in efforts towards women empowerment. It has established the Ministry of Women and social welfare (MWSW) or the “National Plan of Action (NPA) for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment”. It seems that the work of the NGOs influences measures of the government. For example, NGOs in Nepal have been working towards women’s right to employment. Constant efforts such as this have led the government in 2003 to lift the prohibition on women to employment in gulf countries. This apparent gap on the part of the government to implement and execute necessary policy measures is a definite sign of lack of political will, which in turn affect the social will. This gap may well affect the three dimensions of personal, rational and collective women empowerment. This may be the reason of why irrespective of multiple NGOs in Nepal that work for the women, they are based in the urban areas. The women in rural areas are therefore left ignored in empowerment programs.

The above discussion demonstrates a multi-level disparity caused by lack of social and political will. Nepal generally has inequality between the men and women. The inequality is not confined between men and women. It is amongst women too, between those in the rural area and those in the urban area. Such inequality among women may be due to economic disparity and lack of access to facilities, such as education and employment opportunities. Social inequality that favours the sons more than the girls seems to be confined to rural areas. If such disparity generally affecting women in Nepal at large is seen from the context of Dalit women, the concern is with the level of how much high the disparity could be. Dalit men and women as such face extreme inequalities, discrimination and other social vices. Even though they are at part in terms of being exposed to social ills, literature review found that Dalit women are far more marginalised in the society than men. Historically, they were deprived of education, rights to properties, and exposed to discrimination, sexual exploitation, violence and trafficking. In recent times too, their exploitation and deprivation of their rights seem to continue.

The problem lack of empowerment as observed for women in Nepal extends to the Dalit women, but to a greater extent. Literature review has not found the disparity amongst rural and urban women in respect to Dalit women. They are an extremely marginalised group in an already marginalised community. The review did not find anything that could state that Dalit women in urban area have better access to education and economic opportunities than their rural counterparts. This may be an area of further research that could be addressed separately. It may help find that the kind of inequality against women in Nepal is the same with the inequality against Dalit women, especially comparing women in urban areas and rural areas. If the pattern is not the same, Dalit community as such is generally marginalised and Dalit women in particular are the most marginalised group amongst the citizens of the country. This last statement may be true as literature review has found that Dalit women in the bottom line of the poverty. They are exposed to extreme social and economic disadvantages. Literature review suggest that the lack of education and employment, dependency on men together with the issue of caste and gender discrimination and social evils such as dowry system in Nepal push Dalit women to the most marginalised group in the society. Care Nepal cites the reason for lack of education for the problem faced by Dalit women. However, it is not just one reason. It could be stated that the three dimensions of personal, rational and collective dimensions to empowerment, as presented by Rowland (1997) could not be found in the policy measures in place. There have been some efforts made by NGOs, such as the Feminist Dalit organization Nepal (FEDO). Main focus is reducing poverty and addressing the basic needs of Dalit women, including their rights, equality and social justice to the Dalit women. However, literature review suggests these efforts have not been able to reach to the poorest people, who happen to be Dalit women. This is a sign of complete lack of social and political will. Such lag in policy measures could be gauged from the fact that irrespective of the establishment of the Dalit commission in 2002 by the government, it could not fulfil the objective of Dalit community.

Literature review has undertaken a structural review of the issue of women empowerment, covering South East Asia and Nepal ranging from issues faced by women in South Asia to those in Nepal and to Dalit women in Nepal. The issue of gender inequality is generally found in South East Asia. When look at the three levels women in South Asia as a region, Nepal as a country and Dalit women in Nepal specifically, the issue of gender inequality in the economic and social sphere is generally in existence. Particularly reviewing the status of the Dalit women in Nepal, they seem to be at the worse situation. Their social and economic conditions are intertwined with each causing the other condition. The social exploitation of women in general is common while reviewing at the level of South East Asia, Nepal and the Dalit community. From the literature review, a pattern of deprivation of education, economic and employment opportunities could be observed at the level of South East Asia and Nepal review regarding the issue facing women empowerment. Different levels of disparity are found even amongst women in urban areas and those in rural areas. This itself is a proof of failure in women empowerment policy measures that create more disparity amongst areas that offer better economic opportunities than those, which is the rural area, with less economic opportunities.

Regarding the policy implementation regarding women empowerment, it is the role of international bodies such as UNICEF and domestic NGOs such as FEDO that has kept women empowerment movement ahead. However, without a stronger political will, such movement may not bring the desired result. This has happened with the Dalit commission in 2002. In context of women in Nepal and then particularly Dalit women, the differences in the challenges faced by women is only in the degree of social and economic issues faced by the women. Literature review has found the inequalities between men and women, women in urban areas and women in rural areas, and women in Nepal and women belonging to Dalit community. Firstly, the root cause may lie in the way society attaches lesser value to a girl than to a boy. Boys are given priority and status in terms of their entitlement to health, social position and economic opportunities. This is despite the fact that women contribute equally in terms of work and effort towards the family. For such reasons, it could be that even after being employed as nurses and teachers in Nepal, most of the Dalit women are forced to work on daily wages subject to gender and caste discrimination.

The second issue is a product of the first issue. Women have lesser access to education and economic opportunities and thus are potentially subjected to exploitation and violence. The third issue is a reflection of the first and second issues. They show the lack of social and political will to remove these barriers and empower women of the society. If such will were there, the policy measures and programmes, such as those under the 2002 Commission would have bore fruits. This would have removed the challenges to implementing programmes under UNICEF, violence against women, issues of unpaid works, lack of better economic opportunities, poverty and most important inequality. It would have given women more access to resources, better health, and priorities and value equal to men.

The issue of Dalit women is very unique as all the issues that one could identify in regard to women empowerment and in regard to problems faced by women could be found relatable to Dalit women. Dalit community as such are already marginalised; however, Dalit women are placed at the worse possible scenario. Their position is beyond the level of disparities applicable to women in the South East Asia and Nepal, discussed earlier. They occupy a unique position subject to complex social, economic and political disadvantages. Whether it is lack of education, social standing, exploited labour, deprivation of basic rights, lack of economic opportunities, etc, Dalit women in Nepal are subject to these issues. All these issues should constitute the various different components that Stromquist (1995) stated that could help understand causes of women and collectively action towards social change. Young (1993) thus, rightly observes that empowerment will enable women change their life and have control over the choices to bring up their status in the society and sustain themselves.

The findings of the literature review suggest there is a generally social and economic inequality against women in Nepal and worst of inequality against Dalit women. Major concern has been the continuous lack of social will and political will, which has made the individual, rational and collective empowerment of women in Nepal and most needed corrective justice to Dalit women in Nepal challenging. Until the disparities against women are tackled in the country, it is not even possible to address issues faced by Dalit women. The most basic step as such would be to empower Dalit women and women in Nepal with economic opportunities. This would at least make them independent in their choices of education, health care and well being. On a separate level, necessary social policies must be in order to address the difference in how boys and girls or men and women are viewed and valued in the society. There is a need to adapt a social change to remove the notion that sons are more valuable or men are more important than women. Such change is also needed to address the perception of discrimination against the Dalit community. The perception of attaching more social value to higher caste and devaluing lower caste and the practice of caste discrimination must be addressed at the level of social and political institutions.


This dissertation has used a secondary methodology for collecting and analysing data that would generate better understanding of the causes and issues associated with Dalit women in Nepal. There are certain limitations of this research that are identified in this section along with the possible future research and methodology improvements. The first limitation of this research is that because secondary research methodology is applied, the data does not contain any primary data that would reflect on the experiences, opinions, and statements of women belonging to the Dalit community in Nepal. This means that the findings of this research are based on secondary data. Primary data collected from members of the community and women especially from the Dalit community would have provided greater insight into the experiences of the women and would have generated better understanding of such experiences. However, due to the conditions created by the pandemic as well as the limitations of time and resources, such primary research involving human participants from the Dalit community could not be conducted. In future, this research can be built upon by conducting a primary research study, which would allow us to get a better understanding of this issue.

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The second limitation of this study relates to the generalisability of the findings. Because the data was collected from a secondary data sample that was also small, the findings may not be prone to generalisation. The third limitation of this study is that because only secondary data was used from literature, there is no possibility of triangulation of the data. Triangulation of the data is useful for the purpose of increasing the reliability of the data because the researcher uses more than one kind of data or collects data from more than one kind of source. This helps the researcher to assess whether the different data sources lead to the same conclusions and thereby increase the reliability of the findings. In future research on the same subject matter, triangulation can be achieved for increasing the reliability of the findings by collecting both primary and secondary data in a mixed methods research design. This would allow the researcher to conduct a research where two kinds of data are being used and thereby increase the reliability of the findings if both kinds of data lead to similar results.


This dissertation has attempted to understand the causes and issues associated with Dalit women in Nepal. Dalit community as such are economically backward and are treated as outcaste in the society. This dissertation attempted to understand the position of the Dalit women in the country and within the Dalit community. It has addressed issues related to their empowerment by reviewing the role of the institutions, both private and government bodies.

In order to understand the position and issues related to empowerment of Dalit women, the dissertation took a broader structural review of the position of women in the society. This was done by reviewing their position firstly at the South Asian countries, Nepal and particularly the Dalit community in Nepal. The dissertation has found structural form of disparity in the form of inequalities against women as compared with their men counterparts, inequalities between urban women and rural women, and inequalities between men and women in Dalit community. This dissertation has found that Dalit women are placed at the worst and extreme social and economic position as compared with women belonging to other community and social standing in Nepal.

Kabeer (1989) pointed out that women lives have are more important than men’s lives in respect to transforming the power relation between men and women. It seems this view has been ignored so far by the concerned government authorities and policy measures that have failed the implementation of policies meant for empowerment of Dalit women in Nepal. This also holds true to women in general in Nepal. The few efforts made by the NGOs and government efforts influenced by the work of the NGOs, such as the National Plan of Action (NPA) for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Constant or the 2003 lifting of prohibition on women to employment in gulf countries are positive signs, which acknowledge the view of (Kabeer, 1989). However, the findings of the dissertation would suggest for a dramatic positive change in the position of the women in the three levels mentioned earlier. Most important is the position of the Dalit women, who occupy the most marginalised position among the extremely marginalised community and gender.

This dissertation has addressed the main causes for marginalisation of Dalit women in Nepal. It has highlighted the fact that the existence of the Dalit community is attached to the core of religion that creates caste system and caste-based discrimination. This is not confined to Nepal alone. This issue of found in other South Asian countries. Amongst the many ethnic groups, cast, culture, Dalit community is the most marginalised and hence suffers from all kinds of social, economic, cultural, and political disadvantages. This dissertation has addressed the kinds of policy measures and efforts that would tackle such problem in order to empower Dalit women. It has found that it is the numerous NGOs that have been attempting to address the issue of empowerment of Dalit Women. Feminist Dalit Organization (FEDO) is one such NGO that works at grassroots, regional, national and international level. However, it is worth noting that the intensity and coverage of the works of such NGOs are not followed by the government. As observed in this dissertation, the issues and barriers of empowering Dalit women and women in Nepal are lack of both social will and political will. The former is reflected in the negative perception of the society against Dalit community and women at large. The latter is the lack of proportionate government policy measures. This lack of both social and political will is reflection of the neglect towards the issue of empowering Dalit women in Nepal, which has been raised since a long period of time.

In the existing circumstance in Nepal in relation to women, this dissertation raises the question regarding the sincerity of the government in giving the abilities to women to be free to make personal choice. It also raises the question regarding the social perception towards women and the ability of the society and its institutions to change their perception towards women. However, this dissertation has highlighted a few findings that provides a different perspective towards women’s role and position in the society. The three dimensions of empowerment including personal, rational and collective, as stated by Rowland (1997), could be seen reflected in the empowerment of women in urban areas. They have better access to education, health care, economic opportunities and overall freedom to make personal choices. This is not the case with women at rural area. It could be observed urban areas offer greater economic opportunities, which empower communities at large to offer and avail better education, health care, social strata and economic opportunities. It is a progressive cycle. However, rural areas are not able to create this cycle due to lack of proper economic structure, which in turn affects the other elements in the cycle. Understandably, this could explain to certain, but not to large extent of why women are marginalised in the rural areas and not in the urban areas. However, does it mean having better access to economic infrastructure and other opportunities has solved the issue of social barrier to women empowerment and most important empowerment to Dalit women. The answer may not be affirmative.

This dissertation has found the society at large sees Dalit community at the lowest level of the social structure with prejudice. Dalit women are at the lowest disadvantage position. Even when they contribute equally as men, Dalit men have more value at social standing. The three dimensions of empowerment as stated by Rowland (1997) are completely lacking in this regard. Dalit women completely lack opportunities to self develop and lack capacity to make decisions regarding their development. This is a reflection of the government will, which lacks these three dimensions of empowerment. Dalit women occupy a unique disadvantageous position. Unless they are given economic opportunities, they will still remain at the lowest economically disadvantageous position. This is the first corrective measures that the government must undertake in order for them to be able to make personal choices. This economic measure does not mean that it will also change the negative perception of the society against them. However, it may so if more measures such as the 1995 Beijing Declaration that gave women from South Asian countries access to education opening up employment opportunities are undertaken.

This dissertation has found education as the most common reason behind deprivation of women in Nepal and Dalit women in Nepal of basic rights. This dissertation highlighted one view that education may save women from forms of inequalities against women, such as forced marriages. Education seems to be one of the action items undertaken by UNICEF, South Asia under their programmes to empower women in South Asia. This strategy resonate the observation about the progressive cycle of empowering of women in urban area. For this to occur, the government must undertaken reform creating economic infrastructure, which will create and boost the progressive cycle found in the urban area in the rural areas too. Without economic opportunities, giving access to education may not be sufficient to change the social standing of Dalit women. Policy measures spanning the different social and economic levels could only produce such desired cycle. The policy measures undertaken by the Indian government are worth mentioning here that spread across state, national and local sectors covering health, education, political participation and economic opportunities. This dissertation has found that opportunity to women in industrial sector in Nepal could increase their employment opportunity and economy. This measure could also help reduce poverty and inequality.

This dissertation has address one main barrier to Dalit women empowerment is the disadvantage social status attached to women. It has found that it is mostly the NGOs that have been working to create awareness and give Dalit women access to workshops and other training programmes to bridge the gap in the social perception towards men and women or boys and girls. However, even these efforts are confined to the urban areas. The reason may be found in the lack of economic infrastructure in rural area that would have otherwise motivated education and other economic programmes in rural areas. Therefore, understanding to the source of the problem is required. One way to do this could be that of the Women’s foundation of Nepal, which works towards women participation in politics. Private efforts such as these yielded results in the form of Ministry of Women and social welfare (MWSW) or the 2003 lifting of prohibition. Such efforts have to be consistent and if otherwise failure of the 2002 draft of 137 discriminatory laws could be the constant result.

Of all the issues and barriers against women empowerment, the issue related with Dalit women empowerment seems to be an unsolvable problem. There seems to be a complete failure on the part of the society and the political governance. If there were programmes and policies, Dalit women would not have been at the extreme disadvantageous position. If the work of the NGOs were focussed solely on Dalit women, although they will not be able to do so due to lack of economic infrastructure in rural areas, the position of Dalit women would have been different. The failure of the society and the political institutions is reflected in the way Dalit women have been exposed to discrimination, exploitation and deprivation of the most basic minimal rights. Dependency on husbands and being backward in respect to access to economic opportunity, employment, education, or health are all signs of the failure.

This dissertation has found that the problem associated with Dalit women is three-fold. Firstly, they face discrimination due to being a Dalit. Secondly, they depend on men for income. Thirdly, they face gender discrimination. The result is extreme collective disadvantage position in terms of financial position and social position being exposed to social ills. The poorest of the poor category belongs to Dalit women in rural areas, where the benefits of any kind of private and government programmes do not reach. The reformative measures could lie in bringing all the concerned NGOs and government agencies on board. This dissertation has found that it is mostly the NGOs that are mostly working towards their betterment. It indicates that they have data, reports, and programmes that could identify the core causes and problem associated with Dalit women empowerment. Policy measures and strategy of the Nepal government should take this available structure to carve appropriate development plans. There could be a co-ordinate framework between the various NGOs and the government, which could collectively address issues across national, local and rural areas and across relevant industrial sectors.

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