KATHMANDU, Nepal – The day Ram Devi Tamang became a widow, she didn’t just lose her husband. She lost her home, her savings, her business and the support of her extended family. Though he had died in a motorbike accident, her husband’s parents blamed Tamang for his death.
“They called me husband-eater. They said that if I stay in the village, I’ll eat all the other men,” Tamang said, looking out at the misty hilltops surrounding Namobuddha, a village 25 miles (40 km) east of Kathmandu.
At the time, Tamang was just 25. She had been married for five years and had a four-year-old daughter and a baby girl of six months. Her husband, Prem Lama, worked for an NGO, and she ran a small-scale garment business. After he died, life soon became unbearable. Her in-laws gradually pushed her out of her tailoring business, beat her and called her names. In the midst of a country ravaged by civil war, she found herself increasingly singled out, harassed by her community and ostracized by her own family.
It soon became clear that her only option was to leave the village, taking along nothing but her two children and three sewing machines. That was 16 years ago.
Tamang’s experiences following her husband’s death echo the hardships many widows in Nepal face. There are about 500,000 widows in the country, according to government data from 2011.
In traditional Hindu society, widows are subjected to harsh restrictions: They are not allowed to remarry, wear jewelry or red clothes. They must only eat vegetarian food and are excluded from religious ceremonies.
Because a woman rarely moves back to her parents’ home after the death of her husband, widowhood also often goes hand in hand with being completely at the mercy of one’s in-laws. That can mean being abused, exploited and disowned, as Tamang was.
“Legally, if the house is registered only in the husband’s name, it directly goes to the wife’s name. But the reality is usually totally different.”
Lily Thapa, the founding chair of Women for Human Rights – Single Women Group, Nepal’s largest NGO focusing on widows, said that while there are laws to protect widows from exploitation, including around house ownership, they’re rarely enforced.
“Legally, if the house is registered only in the husband’s name, it directly goes to the wife’s name. But the reality is usually totally different,” she said. More often than not, the late husband’s family takes complete control of the couple’s property and strips the widow of her rights.
Mio Yokota, head of Economic Empowerment at U.N. Women Nepal, agrees. She says that while joint ownership of houses had increased over the last few years, their research has found that joint ownership amounts to less than one in five of all Nepali households.
In addition to the deep-rooted stigma attached to widowhood, Thapa said that a lack of access to higher education and low labor-force participation can make a woman more vulnerable after the death of a husband.
“As an illiterate woman, having no skills, no job and no knowledge, how do you survive?”
Women for Human Rights say 89 percent of Nepalese widows are illiterate. Figures from the World Bank show 81 percent of people in Nepal live in rural areas, where job opportunities in the formal sector are scarce for women. Their role in the village is traditionally confined to household chores and informal agriculture work. And although Nepal’s economy relies heavily on remittances from overseas, only 13 percent of migrant workers are women.
“As an illiterate woman, having no skills, no job and no knowledge, how do you survive?” Thapa said. As a result, widows often end up working as unpaid servants for their in-laws when their husbands die.
Even when women are earning an income, having a paid job doesn’t necessarily strengthen a woman’s negotiating position with in-laws inside the home, Yokota said.
Back in Namobuddha, Tamang, now 44, stands outside wearing a bright red shawl and jewelry. She defies social norms and beliefs about what a widow is allowed and not allowed to do.
After leaving her husband’s village, Tamang settled down in Banepa, 15 miles (25 km) east of Kathmandu. It was difficult: She had to care for her children and work without any support.
But she put her tailoring skills to use and also began selling homemade pickled vegetables. As a result, she was able to support her family and send her two children to school.
She didn’t want other widows to live through what she had experienced, so she became involved in advocating for widows’ rights, helping set up community groups for widows to raise awareness and help empower them economically.
“Throughout my entire life, I always got empowered by women. Other than my father, it was always other women who’ve helped me develop,” she said.
“Throughout my entire life, I always got empowered by women. Other than my father, it was always other women who’ve helped me develop.”
Tamang realized she could make a difference at the political level when members of the community asked her to run for the position of deputy mayor. She knew that if she held office, she could make a bigger difference in widows’ lives.
In order to finance her political debut, Tamang took out a loan to cover her campaign costs. Against the odds, in May last year, she was elected deputy mayor of Namobuddha Municipality.
Tamang said the dire financial situation of many widows prevented them from being politically active like her – something she would like to change.
“Of course, you need money and it’s difficult for me, because … I’m both the man and the woman of the household,” she said.
She says her goal now is to create employment opportunities for widows in her community; to give them an opportunity to learn new, tangible skills, and to make it easier for them to get involved in politics.
“Money comes and goes, but skills stay with you forever.”