On the way to the main square of the hill town of Putalibazaar in Syangja district, you’ll find a small retail store, opposite of the Women Development Office, that sells bangles and bead necklaces. The shopkeeper inside is Sunita Chhetri, a 26-year-old woman sitting behind her fat accounts book, happily chatting away with her customers. She is one of those countless Nepali women breaking new grounds with their entrepreneurial spirit. And earning an income in the process has radically changed her life.

Chhetri has lived a hard life. She comes from a poor family of farmers. She was married when she was still pursuing her bachelor’s degree; her husband is now in Qatar, working as a migrant worker. She was battling depression and raising her two kids when she started hearing insinuations from her in-laws that she was wasting the money her husband sent from abroad, dismissing her as incapable of making a life of her own. But she has proved them wrong. She started her shop with money borrowed from a women’s cooperative. Now that she has her own earnings, the insults have stopped.

Like Chhetri, women in Nepal are eager to work for an income. They enjoy the freedom that having one’s own income brings, and feel more confident in standing up against physical and verbal violence. Compared to their mother’s generation, they are better educated and trained. But there remain major roadblocks limiting their horizons.

Over the last two years, I’ve talked to more than a hundred adolescent girls and women from different classes and ethnicities to learn about their work experience and the violence they might have faced. All the women I spoke to said they valued their work for the independence it gave them. And none of them would cease to work, even if they had enough wealth to never have to work.

Unsurprisingly, marriage is major turning point for women’s work life regardless of what class they belong to or where they live. Young women in villages fear that their in-laws might not let them work. Many upper-class women in Kathmandu hold similar anxieties. Conservative attitudes on women working is not uncommon in cities and runs it across the classes.

According to the women who have managed to overcome familial and social resistance to working life, the first hurdle is the toughest. Once they start earning an income, and a name for themselves, naysayers turn around. For women like Putalibazaar’s Chhetri, the initial support required to start their enterprise, at least for rural women, comes from women’s savings and credit cooperatives. These cooperatives function not only as a source of credit in times of need but also as an important support system, an arena to develop leadership and build bridges with government, profit-making sector, and NGOs that can help  them. They spur job creation.

A women's cooperative in Syangja. Photo: Kristi Maskey.
A women’s cooperative in Syangja. Photo: Kristi Maskey.

In contrast to rural women, urban women with greater financial resources feel more isolated. They’re usually not members of community groups like credit cooperatives, which extend beyond the circle of their friends and families. Many continue to face hurdles from their families when looking for jobs on their own.

This is not to imply that women’s troubles are over once they start earning an income. For one, almost all women I spoke to had stories of harassment during their commutes. This problem is more acute in urban areas. Not having to face harassment in public spaces and transportation, and being able to return home late without safety concerns would open more jobs for women.

The access to a safe and convenient commute goes beyond safety. For jobs that require night shifts, a night transportation service ensures not just ease of movement, but also provides social sanction. For example, waitresses at any of the innumerable party palaces in the valley find it hard to get home after work. They have to hitch a ride home after work at times, often with male colleagues, eliciting innuendos. Even jobs that are prized, for example, of a nurse, become problematic to parents once their daughters have to work night shift.

Once a woman does eventually gets to work, other issues surface. Working women who chose to have children should receive paid maternity leave, women-friendly facilities such as a nursing place for a new mother, and childcare services. All workplaces need a trusted grievance mechanism to address harassment at work. Only these arrangements would ensure an equitable labor relations at work.

Working for an income is also an important stepping stone to public life. In Chhetri’s case, while she spends her money on her children’s education, like many others, she also wants to be able to give back to the community, and earn recognition for doing so.

In Nepal’s rapidly changing society, women are entering the workforce in large numbers into arenas traditionally occupied by men, even when the social relations and the work environment are not changing fast enough to meet their needs.

Cover photo: Sunita Chhetri in her shop. Kristi Maskey.