Asia Catalyst

[REPORT] The Limits of Legal Rights in Nepal

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by Hayley Curry

The rule of law can be a powerful and effective tool for building a society that is free of injustice and filled with opportunities for all, but the operational environment that accompanies human rights advocacy can limit its effectiveness. This summer, while working as a legal intern at an NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal, I experienced these challenges firsthand.

The NGO I joined focused primarily on United Nations conventions and other multilateral human rights agreements, particularly the Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Woman (CEDAW). Despite having ratified CEDAW, Nepal still maintains over 100 discriminatory laws which influence everything from women's ability to pass citizenship on to their children to their ability to inherit property and study abroad.  The organization was attempting to get CEDAW provisions into domestic law and thereby enhance the legal status of women. It conducted the necessary empirical research on the challenges women faced, and submitted draft proposals and bills to concerned agencies and Parliament itself. 

The organization has had some success in overturning or amending these laws, but the process of legal change in Nepal is slow-going. Although CEDAW and other agreements express worthy sentiments and guidelines, they are not always easily absorbed into a nation's legal structure. A nation can ratify them but go years without enacting laws based on them, or without enforcing any of the laws which are enacted.  Such is the case in Nepal.


I departed the United States this summer with the intention of working to protect and promote the rights of the disenfranchised, the untouchables, the refugees--those in Nepal who were unable to fight for themselves in the court of law. While these lofty goals might have proved incredibly ambitious even under the best of circumstances, the past year has not provided anywhere close to good circumstances for this land-locked nation, nestled in  between China and India.


Nepal is currently operating under an Interim Constitution.  Its final Constitution was to be enacted before May 28th, but due to extreme political infighting and disagreement among parties, this deadline was not met. The Maoists brought Kathmandu to a halt with a paralyzing week-long strike in early May, and smaller strikes, skirmishes, and similar civil unrest have occurred regularly throughout the country, disrupting and endangering life for the citizenry.

Although an extension was granted and the Constituent Assembly was given one more year to complete the governing document, no further progress has been made. This lack of progress by their elected leaders has disillusioned many Nepali people, creating doubt among some that democracy (which has only recently taken hold post-monarchy) is the best form of government for their country. 

Moreover, the nation has been lacking a Prime Minister since Madhav Kumar Nepal resigned in June, as per a delicate agreement with the Maoists. Nepal has held several rounds of elections for prime minister, but with no successful result. In this unstable political environment, the rule of law is not particularly effective at achieving results.

Based on my observations this summer, I concluded that for the majority of citizens, who reside outside of Kathmandu in remote villages, it is the basic necessities of life that will make the most positive difference--basics such as clean water, safe roads, enough food, all of which are very scarce in many parts of the country.  The villagers may not even know--or care--what the United Nations is. They care whether there will be a school near enough for their children to get an education. They care whether the roads will be blockaded during yet another political strike, prohibiting them from taking their goods to market. They care about being able to feed their families every day, worrying whether either the monsoon or lack of rain will destroy their crops.  Even if the laws are officially changed in the legal ledgers in Kathmandu, there is little guarantee they will be enforced. The police seem to readily accept bribes, making those with money and other types of power virtually immune to punishment and still leaving women without formal protection, regardless of legal or policy changes made by NGOs or governmental agencies. 

While women undeniably occupy a lower social status than men in these villages (something CEDAW aims to address), I began to feel that an all-around improvement in standard of living would best help women ease their burdens. Through my work and travels, I observed businesses, not lawyers, doing the most tangible good around the country. These entrepreneurs were creating jobs, training individuals, generating revenue and giving back to their communities. Because of them, Nepal is developing a much-needed infrastructure and skilled workforce. Long-term, these projects hold great potential for bettering Nepal and making life better for all of its citizens.

Thus, after a summer working in human rights law, I am no longer convinced that law is always the best way to advance human rights.  In environments where the legal and political situations are tenuous, economic work--while not necessarily any easier than legal work--may prove more beneficial.  A stable government and economic development seem to me to be the cornerstones which may ultimately make dreams of a stable, thriving Nepal a reality. 

Hayley Curry is a J.D. student at University of Pennslyvania, and interned for Asia Catalyst in summer 2010.

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