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Women Hold Up Half The Sky

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

Women are Nepal’s backbone, we often hear. But while they hold up half the sky for others, there’s not much happening for them in return. Instead, many women are forced to lead an existence that often hides a cruel tragedy.

With much more to shoulder than just half the sky.

an older woman from Nepal with a wrinkled forhead and two noserings
For many Nepali women, life is an endless struggle of hardship and discrimination (photo credit: Meghsha Karki on Unsplash)

Karmila is one of these bold souls

She sits in a small hut somewhere in Nepal’s rugged mountain world, hiding from the scorching April sun. A slender woman with matted hair. A single streak peeks out from underneath her battered towel, which she has wrapped around her head like a majestic turban.

Next to her on the dusty floor rests a greasy, once-white jerry can. One of those used to transport gasoline. Attached to it is a brittle rope that helps haul the bulky beast.

As I approach to share Karmila’s shade, she walks off to the adjoining snack shop to get a cigarette. A moment later, she returns with the smoldering affair. After a few deep drags, Karmila leans back and begins to talk. Her voice is soft and crackling. Maybe from countless years of smoking unfiltered fags or just the harshness of life.

Life’s injustice hits most women harder than men

Her story is that of many other women in Nepal. Accounts ingrained in a complex and discriminatory culture that is difficult to grasp at times. Stories of exclusion and hardship that have calloused countless bodies, minds, and souls.

Karmila clearly shows signs of a harsh existence. For women like her, this means toiling from early morning till late at night without rest, vacation, pay, or even a fraction of respect.

Women in Nepal are still sandwiched between ancient traditions and modernity to which they often have little or no access. They stay where they are while playing an essential but largely subordinate role. And then, there is the caste system that ranks people into different categories by birth.

It’s the cause of massive injustice, which only a few escape. And it usually disadvantages women even more.

Single womanhood is a social stain you can’t wipe off

Karmila is the mother of two daughters, who no longer live with her. They hardly ever see each other these days. When the girls got married, they joined the household of their husbands’ families. An ancient patriarchal practice that is as valid as it was centuries ago.

Though divorces started happening in Nepal, they are deemed a bad omen, particularly for women. Kamila knows what she is talking about. After giving birth to girls, her husband left to unite with another woman in the hope of male offspring. He took off without ever coming back.

Karmila lives alone since, deprived of the social standing she once had in the community, and still does not comprehend how such misfortune could have befallen her.

In Nepal, being married is more important than an individual’s life — a reputation with a lifelong stigma that rises or falls with marital status. Once upon a time, women followed their deceased husbands to the stake.

“This cruel practice no longer exists, yet single womanhood is still a disgrace,” Karmila sighs with nothing left to hope for.

Making ends meet has become a heavy affair

Karmila barely makes ends meet these days by distilling and selling liquor.

Twice a month, she hauls a 10 l canister on her back to the next bazaar. A two hours hike over rugged terrain in cheap plastic sandals. If she is lucky, she sells her liquor for the equivalent of $20. Then there are days when she must carry her full canister back home. Today luck struck. The canister is empty, and with 20$ safely tucked away under her bra, the way home is easier.

“I don’t know how I’m going to get by without the liquor, but soon I will be old to lift this weight,” she says, taking one last drag of her cigarette before tossing it into the dry bushes that belt the resting place.

The shop owner appears with a steaming bowl of instant noodle soup — a cheap and readily available snack in rural Nepal. For some, it is still a rare treat.

And while Kamila eagerly slurps her soup, a tear sails off from the corner of her left eye. I watch it carve a track down her dusty face before it leaps away and vanishes as if it never existed.

There is nothing left but to carry on

Tears usually do not have space in a woman’s life and public. They don’t have time for that. Yet, when the moment arrives, grief breaks its way. A rare moment I could witness with Karmila — a mundane woman whose heartbreaking life story is the essence of so many others.

Women hold up half the sky. But often, they do so much more.

They hold it for a good harvest and the birthing of many healthy sons. For successful marriages and the well-being of husbands and children. For peace and justice and long lives. For the mercy of Nepal’s many insatiable deities. For the entire human race. And so does Karmila until she exhales her final breath.

And as she shares a rare tear with me, I start wondering who is out there holding up the sky for Karmila and her many unsung sisters. “I do,” I hear myself whisper. “I do, with all my heart.”


Thank you for your continued interest in a Roadside Story from Nepal and your precious time. These stories are about mundane men and women from Nepal. Stories I cover while traveling the country on my motorbike. Due to a prolonged work stay, I speak Nepali and take deep joy in joining the locals from all walks of life to share a moment and our stories.

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