Bordered by China and India, Nepal is a land of profound beauty but is subjected to the stark reality of a people in a daily struggle to sustain themselves. In a country rich in cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, there are painfully obvious signs of poverty and illiteracy. Steeped in patriarchal and caste-based traditions, society places minimal value on women and children. This is glaringly evident in the higher than normal infant mortality rate, as well as the lower life expectancy for females versus males. These discrepancies can be directly attributed to lack of proper education for women and children, which also translates into fewer economic opportunities for females. Considering that 50% of the population is under the age of 18, it is quickly apparent why 60% of the population live below the international poverty level and the other 40% live in abject poverty.
Combined with the onslaught of constant political unrest and civil war, women are often left as widows to provide a living for their families. Children are left to fend for themselves and in many cases, forced to work as slave laborers. Although slavery was officially abolished in 1924, debt bonds are still a persistent problem in the Terai, and often involve children. Approximately 50% of all children are working and living in deplorable situations. These children suffer from malnutrition, untreated medical problems and emotional and physical abuses that are unimaginable for most people in more developed countries. Child labor is considered an inevitable part of Nepali society and is the harsh reality of the country’s socio-economic and political strife.
Rural communities heavily rely upon the exploitation of their children, who play a significant role in their family’s survival. Fetching water, collecting firewood, grazing cattle, caring for younger children and supporting parents in the fields are the most common work. Pushed by poverty and deprivation, many children are migrating to the urban areas. This forced migration has ultimately contributed to an overwhelming increase of child labor in the cities. The predominant industries that utilize child laborers are the carpet, garment, and confectionery factories, brick kilns, road and building construction companies, transportation services and stone quarries. Similarly, thousands of children are being employed in mines and domestic service. Unscrupulous employers prefer children because they are a cheap source of labor, are meek and uncomplaining.
Many children are homeless and live on the streets in the cities. They are known as “Khate”- the street children. They forage through fly-infested garbage heaps to collect plastic, metal and paper, which they sell to earn a small income for food. The less fortunate become thieves, beggars and prostitutes. Bare feet and unclothed bodies, snotty noses and unkempt hair, playing with dirt and stones, screaming around the roads or working…these are the palpable features of Nepalese children.
Nepal is very rich and diverse in natural physical attractions and cultures. Indeed, the civilization of community is still centuries behind the rest of the world, hence it is unique. Nepal has never been colonized by another nation, and as such it has developed as a self-contained culture and society. The dominant Hindu religion along with some Buddhist influences pervades Nepali culture. Here, society and culture has been dictated by the caste system along with the barter system. Indeed, community is still evolving.
It seems that the groups are sticking to their way of living so that in many communities and mountain regions, most of the people still don’t have a toilet; it’s not surprising to see locals defecating on their front porch. In some communities, people marry their children off while still in childhood. In Newar culture, they perform a ritual that their daughters get married with Bel (a kind of wild fruit) before puberty and getting married with a guy. Raute and Kusunda, two distinct ethnic groups in Nepal, still live in primitive conditions. The Kusunda live in caves, under trees or in temporary huts in the jungle and they subsist on wild fruits, roots and plants as well as hunting and eating monkeys. They use the bow and arrow as their weapon and they have different dialects. Only a handful of them are settled into occupational farming. It is believed that there are not more than a hundred or so of them who speak their tribal language. So, their language is on the verge of extinction. It is believed that this tribe has a very low population, maybe just a few hundreds.
Structure, materials and location of houses vary between different ethnic groups. A tribe called Tharu normally has simple stalked huts huddled up in a small area. On the other hand, tribes such as the Gurung, Rai, Limbu have houses made of wood, stone, stone paved roof and they are cramped together in a small area. Different ethnic groups have different kinds of cuisines, costumes, ornaments, languages etc. In general, the Chepang and Tharu love fish whereas the Gurung, Magar, Bramin, Chhetry, Newar etc love varieties of meat and in order to cook they use sticks and twigs as fuel. Most of these ethnic groups keep a couple of pigs, buffalos, goats, cows and poultry that bears out their impecuniousness. They prefer to focus on agriculture and working rather than on education. However, festivals and ceremonies are highly valuable. People still visit Dhami, Jhakri (the healer) for medication. Surprisingly, in mountainous regions, most people have never seen a motor vehicle in their life, not to mention TVs, computers and other gadgets.
Most of the Tharu women decorate themselves with tattoos on their bodies which is not common in other tribal groups. One tribe, Badi community, sees women prostitute themselves in their own homes.
Moreover many cultural groups have been specialised in their occupations for centuries. Customarily, Damais are tailors, Kamis are smiths, Sarkis are cobblers, Dhobis are washermen, Khumbaras are porters, Gaines are professional singers, Giris are beggars, Dhamis are healers, Lamas and Upadhyayas are priests etc. Some are of very low caste, and may be banned from going into Temples, Monasteries or higher ranked peoples’ houses, and may not touch people of higher caste. This has always been the practice in Nepalese society.
Though it hasn’t reached the level of modern society as seen in most of the world, Nepal and its people have many wonderful aspects to offer.