Nepali Women’s Interim Protection

The opportunities
to place reproductive rights squarely into a country’s constitution are rare — and when they come up, they should
be exploited to their full advantage.

Constitutional guarantees provide
women judicial protection, so that when women’s reproductive rights are violated, whether through preventable
maternal deaths, being denied access to reproductive health care or discriminatory
treatment when seeking reproductive health services, women have standing under domestic law to challenge the violation. Reproductive rights
protections in constitutions also influence political decision-making
and legislative priorities, in turn leading to budgetary allocations
and practical protections for women’s reproductive rights.

In January
2007, the Government of Nepal adopted the Interim
incorporates health as a fundamental right of the people, recognizing
that "every woman shall have the right to reproductive health and
other reproductive matters"
as a fundamental right.
This recognition marked the first
that a government
in the region had explicitly recognized women’s reproductive rights
as fundamental rights in a national constitution.

The reforms
reflected a culmination of efforts of a range of advocacy groups, including
the Nepal-based Forum
for Women, Law, and Development

and the Legal
Aid and Consultancy Center
as well as the New York-based Center
for Reproductive Rights (CRR)
In fact, in a letter to the Interim Drafting Committee in July 2006,
CRR suggested that Nepal emulate some of the most progressive aspects
of the South African Constitution with regards to reproductive rights. (The South Africa Constitution guarantees the right of access to
health care, explicitly including reproductive health care and protections against direct and indirect discrimination on the basis
of a range of grounds, including sex, gender, pregnancy or sexual
orientation.) CRR also highlighted to the Drafting Committee Nepal’s maternal mortality
rate, one of the highest in the world at 830
per 100,000
in 2005. In their view, the constitutional clause needed to recognize
the right to make decisions about reproduction, the right of access
to health care services as fundamental rights, and prohibit direct and indirect discrimination on grounds that include sex, gender,
pregnancy, marital status, age and culture.

While the
goal of explicitly protecting reproductive rights in the Interim Constitution
has been achieved, the responsibility for the new Constitution is in
the hands of a new Constituent
, a 601-member
body elected in April 2008, more than one-third of whom are women. The
redrafting should be finalized by May
In the meantime, advocates continue to push to maintain the rights-protective
provisions that exist in the Interim version. We can only hope that
Nepal does not see a repetition of the Constitutional reform process
in Timor-Leste. In August 2001, prior
to the constituent elections, a collaboration of women’s groups
developed a charter of women’s rights, which stated that, "[t]he State must provide reproductive health
care for women." While the new Constitution included some aspects
of the charter, the reproductive rights language was not included. Instead, the Constitution only guaranteed the right
to health in more general terms.

The fact
that reproductive rights as fundamental rights have been included in
the Interim Constitution, and may be kept in the final draft, is only
a starting point. Criticism has been directed at the Interim Constitution’s
provisions for their lack of substance. A report released by the Center for Human
Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ)

in 2008, on Dalit rights in Nepal, recommends that the new Constitution include the reproductive rights guarantees found in the Convention on
the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
(ICESCR). Specifically, CHRGJ has pushed for the Constitutional guarantees
to be elaborated upon and include: the right to access a full range of high
quality and affordable health care, including sexual and reproductive
services; equitable distribution of all health facilities, goods and
services (including access to "essential medicines"); the right
to control fertility; and the right to obtain family planning information, counseling,
and services without discrimination.

The need for
ongoing lobbying of the new Constituent Assembly members to protect women’s
health and rights in the new constitution is reflected in the work of WOREC Nepal and
Women’s Reproductive Rights Program/CAED
. The group jointly organized a four day Review and Orientation Workshop, followed
by a National Consultation, in May 2008 at Kharipati, Bhaktapur, timed
to coincide with International Women’s Health Rights Day on the 28th of May. The occasion was used to advocate for more specific guarantees
of a range of reproductive rights protections, including maternity leave,
prevention of anemia amongst pregnant women, improved financial and
physical resources, improved access to family planning programs amongst
the poor and people of oppressed or disadvantaged classes, as well as
increased discussion of the reproductive rights of men.

The specific
situation of Nepal’s history of conflict and its impact on reproductive
health was also discussed, including alarming maternal mortality rates,
bereavement resulting from the death and disappearance of children,
and sexual violence.

As political,
judicial, administrative and other reforms are undertaken during any
post-conflict period, it is important that social and economic reforms,
such as reproductive rights and reproductive health, are not left off
the table. Post-conflict constitution-making presents a fertile opportunity
to advocate, guarantee and normalize reproductive rights.

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  • invalid-0

    Hello Ramona. First let me say thanks for speaking about recent events in Nepal. I think what has happened there is extremely important and it demonstrates the possibility for real positive change. The right of women to control their own bodies should not be taken from them, and I’m sure your readers feel the same way. So we should be clear about how the Nepalis made this amazing progress if we are serious about making similar changes in other parts of the world.

    You say “The reforms reflected a culmination of efforts of a range of advocacy groups…”

    I will admit that I still have much to learn, but it is my understanding that the Interim Constitution you speak of is a direct result of a communist revolution led by the Maoist Communist Party of Nepal. This was a mass movement – a long, hard struggle in which the people of Nepal fought to force the old rulers out and to bring in a new society. Gaining new freedoms for women was a major part of this struggle.

    Maoists believe in the complete emancipation of women, and this includes total reproductive rights. This point is emphatically stated in much of communist literature the world over. Even here in the US, in a society dominated by right wing religious conservatism, there is a communist party, the Revolutionary Communist Party, that calls for total reproductive rights for women.

    My point is that the Maoists in Nepal demand reproductive rights for all women as an official part of their program. They wouldn’t need advocacy groups to make suggestions on this point, although I’m sure they welcome their support.

    In your opening statement, you said that developments like this “should be exploited to their full advantage.” I agree completely, and understanding how it happened that women in Nepal have freedoms that women in the US do not is critical. In order to make similar changes here, we need to understand what forces support or oppose women’s rights and why. And most importantly, we need to know how people have been able to conquer those opposing forces so that we may be able to do the same. I hope to hear more from you on this point.

    Thanks again for the article and for letting me comment.


  • invalid-0

    And I’ll tell you why:
    Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

    There is no doubt in my mind that Secretary Clinton will push (hard) with the full backing and support of the Obama Administration (god it feels good to say that) to establish and protect the rights of women across the globe. We may not hear about it much in the states (although, those of us who keep up with this global issue will), but it’s pretty clear to me, at least, that one of her main missions as Secretary of State will be to establish and protect women’s rights.

  • invalid-0

    Dear Dan,

    Thank you for your comments. I want to reiterate my particular interest in the inclusion of specific reproductive rights language, rather than constitutional reform as a whole. The Interim Constitution was the work of a number of different political parties, including the Maoists, who formed the Interim Government. However, it was the dedicated advocacy of a range of actors pushing for specific reproductive rights language that has resulted in a constitutional obligation to fulfill the reproductive rights of Nepalese. In my view, there is a difference between a belief in reproductive rights and actually guaranteeing reproductive rights as fundamental in a constitution, which is one aspect that makes this constitution so unique.

    I agree that it’s essential to known what obstacles stand in the way of reproductive rights and with whom we can gather to fight those obstacles. The challenge is to recognize that these obstacles take so many different forms in different societies and contexts, whether it be a simple lack of will or understanding that reproductive rights are human rights and a binding obligation on governments, to extreme interpretations of religious text, to a desire to allocate a government’s budget elsewhere. Thank you again for the interesting dialogue.