Levers for Development: Gender, Communications and Indigenous Knowledge in Nepal | Veneeta Singha 2009

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Levers for Development: Gender, Communications and Indigenous Knowledge in Nepal | Veneeta Singha 2009


Many societies and community orders have introduced and emulated gender equity and empowerment systems that are based on contemporaneous notions of women's rights. These systems may work for a while and may have novelty value. They are based primarily on cultural, political, socio-economic and socio-historical models that are unique to a modern interpretation of equality and power. Gender relations and equality in the South and, more specifically, in Nepal must incorporate a syntheses and replication of local knowledge, inherently indigenous, as well as a reviewed understanding of the roles, and, often, contributive status of women in Nepal and the Nepali milieu.

Centuries of communitarian beliefs and evolving practices have led to a fragile gender equation in Nepal. This system is built on the dominant and syncretistic socio-cultural, environmental and economic realities of the many ethnic and localized tribes, sects, castes and groups that live in Nepal. This knowledge, if tapped effectively, can further improve the status of women and children in Nepal. A synthesis of knowledge-based social structures that stem from a Nepali perspective and a dual - modern/traditional - Nepali identity is important for a holistic approach to improving and understanding the status of women in Nepal. Tapping and communicating this knowledge is a crucial challenge.

The intersection of communications, gender issues and indigenous knowledge is an interesting one. The explosion of communications media in the past few decades presents unparalleled opportunities to better the lives of people living in the South through effective information exchange, improved communications, education and advocacy. Gender studies are gaining prominence as an important, and almost indispensable, requisite or arm of sustainable development. Indigenous knowledge has, also, begun to take a positive role in shaping development ideals.  

The Kingdom of Nepal, once a group of townships and principalities, was formally unified and consolidated by King Prithvi Narayan Shah. Since unification, the communities comprising this diverse ethnic distribution and dispersed country have frequently converged to support and celebrate several commonalities. Principal among these are the traditions, customs and knowledge bases that each practice, encode and apply in key socio-economic and socio-historical realities. Important to note, these practices and knowledge inculcate agricultural and socio-ecological livelihood mechanisms; natural heritage in consonance with economic betterment; socio-developmental frameworks and habitation as well as community relations and inter-linkages that often characterize a definitive Nepali paradigm. Many of the critical assumptions underlying Nepali socio-signifiers are built on, augmented and supported by this foundation of indigenous knowledge.

Attempts at capturing indigenous knowledge on gender are few and far between in Nepal. Communications development (both theoretically and in practical terms) is at a nascent stage. However, the Development Sector in Nepal, while often criticized, has over the years (through project implementation) garnered an vast wealth of information on Nepal and its people - one of its major competitive advantages, in this respect, is its substantial information base on the socio-developmental status of the Nepali people. The sector stands at a unique point from which it can leverage its position as an institutional pillar to support the wise use and dissemination of indigenous knowledge via both conventional and modern means of communication. Key to this function is that this will, arguably, lead to renewed and fresh approaches in the study of gender dynamics. This, in turn, bodes well for improving the lives of women and children in Nepal as based on contextual and intrinsic knowledge and competencies. Continuity in roles, responsibilities and livelihood choices is an implicit value addition.

In essence, there exists a definitive opportunity for harnessing the above specificities as levers for development in Nepal. Many oral testimonies of historical and livelihood importance; traditional practices in relation to family, community and similar social structures; experiential knowledge on health, natural resource management and entrepreneurship as well as knowledge of static and dynamic cultural mores found here are uniquely Nepali. Much of this knowledge is encased in symbols, practices and idioms thereby making it more applicable in daily life.

Globalised knowledge, as is often opined, is transforming communities into consumers of potentially irrelevant information that does not bear upon key local situations. While the danger of insularity persists, time and again, we have witnessed that learning occurs at a superficial level and can be harmful. Oftentimes, the nuances are more significant than the overt messages and, conversely, the message sometimes lies in the nuance.  The vernacular media in Nepal is often sidelined for more uniform language alternatives and has not garnered the attention or audience it deserves. Additionally, the local communities and stakeholders as well as their implied concerns are rarely given coverage in the existing trans-national media landscape due to inadequate resources for and interest in broadcasting important messages and an overall lack of awareness.

"Armand Mattelart demonstrates in 'Networking the World, 1794-2000', globalization and its attendant hype have existed since road and rail were the fastest way to move information. He places contemporary global communication networks into historical context and shows that the networking of the world began much earlier than many assume - in the late Eighteenth Century.

He argues that the internationalization of communication was spawned by such Enlightenment ideals as Universalism and Liberalism and examines how the development of global communications has been inextricably linked to the Industrial Revolution, modern warfare, and the emergence of nationalism. Throughout, Mattelart eloquently argues that discourses of better living through globalization often mask 'projects' of political, economic, and cultural domination."

 (Source: Media Ecology Association, www.mediaecology.com)

Despite the exponential growth of Internet usage in the developing world, it must be stressed that this connectivity does not reach and serve many remote and marginalized areas and regions. Harnessing local narratives and local issues in an attempt to raise awareness about local problems and solutions can be effective as a conduit between the global and international forces shaping the Development Agenda and the local, immediate realities. The catalytic function of existing and emerging levers for development must be recognized as critical. Consequently, a paradigm shift in the understanding of the synergy among gender, communications and knowledge in Nepal would benefit all stakeholders. A step forward in gender relations and communicative literacy is, therefore, a vital imperative.

Position: Writer

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