Women's agency in relation to population and environment in rural Nepal

N. Tiwari Pandey

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


This research investigated the complex relationship between population and environ­ment with a focus on women’s role in fertility and the food resource environment. The research was carried out in a Gurung community in Lamjung district, in mid-hill Nepal. The household was taken as the unit of analysis. The study is embedded in demographic theory about population growth and in gender theory. The concept of women’s agency was used to link marriage and fertility patterns with household food provision and management of natural resources. Women’s role in population and the environment is placed in a changing socio-cultural and environmental context. An extensive review of the literature relating to population, environment, gender, household, livelihood and food security was done, after which a field study was carried out. Both qualitative and quantitative methods were applied in empirical data collection. The research problem addressed concerned the impact on the relationship between population and environment of women’s reproductive and productive roles at the household level.   The methods used for generating empirical data were: participatory rural appraisal, household food and fertility survey, participant observation, key informants interviews, focus group discussions, and life histories. The household survey was conducted among 350 households, the fertility survey among 343 women aged 15-49. Among forty households food surveys were conducted. A 24-hours food intake recall was done in 31 households. In addition, two PRAs (Participatory Rural Appraisal), ten key informants’ interviews (six males and four females), six case studies and six focus groups discussions, including male and female mixed groups and separate female groups, were conducted. Chi-square tests and regression analysis were applied to elicit significant relationships among the variables. The analysis of the qualitative data was done manually.   Agricultural production is the basis for the livelihoods in the area under study. Rice, maize and millet are the main crops produced. Most people are able to survive on their own agricultural production and the resources in their natural surroundings. Jobs in the services sector provide an important source of income, but mainly for men. Most households, however, do not produce enough food to feed them for the whole year. For the majority of the households the agricultural land available for food production is little and fragmented. There is food deficiency in most households prior to harvesting time. People try to safeguard their food security in various ways. They acquire food by growing food crops in the fields, cultivating vegetables in kitchen gardens, buying food, gleaning, collecting food from the forest, and food exchange, in which rice plays the role of ‘currency’. In these activities women play a crucial role. The majority of the people in the area are hard-pressed to meet their food and livelihood needs. Most of the children do not have an adequate calorie intake.   Women are the main food producers in the Gurung villages. Gurung women play an important role in agricultural production and other farm activities, forestry, and livestock production and management. When they need additional income to buy food, they may engage in liquor making, running teahouses or other income-generating activities. The heavy workload of Gurung women involves food procurement, production, storage, processing and preparation. Women in the village often lack the social and economic power they need for improving their household’s economic condition. Property rights of women are still a major issue, also at the national level. Women who receive parental property (pewa) are relatively more comfortable compared to those who do not. It can make a difference in their daily life, especially when they have to support their children by themselves because the husband does not fulfil his household duties or has left the first wife with children to marry another wife. The case studies show that women are facing many challenges, especially because of their limited access to land. If the husband is working in the army and receives good pay his wife may feel more secure, because if he dies she is entitled to a pension. If the household income is not enough women engage in income-generating activities to supplement it. When the husband has left her to marry another wife a woman focuses her activities on the future of her children. Divorced and widowed women were found reluctant to remarry for fear of losing their children or jeopardizing their children’s future.   The Mid-Marsyangdi Hydro-electric Power Project has had mixed impacts on the local people, causing increasing population pressure and environmental degradation but also enlarging economic opportunities and bringing development in the area. The changes in the area opened up new opportunities for women. In social life women are more respected and through women’s organizations their voice has increased. They can also make use of economic opportunities to improve their livelihood and control their fertility by family planning. The farming environment has changed and improved. Currently, both environmentally and economically sustainable farming systems are being adopted that may not only increase household income but also enrich the diet of the people. At the same time, the development project is creating social, cultural and ecological problems. A lot of new settlements at the road side and other constructions are built on former agricultural land. The level of environmental pollution is rising, as is the incidence of prostitution and public health problems. Migrants from other areas, who were attracted by the project, add to the population pressure. Because of increased population pressure, the limited natural forest resources have declined and degraded. These days, people are more concerned about how to make money than about farming. The cash economy is growing.   Rising age at marriage, long spells of separation from the husband in the repro­ductive period, and increasing use of family planning methods result in fertility levels among the Gurung women in the sample that are lower than the national averages. Child marriage no longer occurs these days and age at marriage among the Gurung women is on the rise. The use of contraception is increasing. Induced abortion has always taken place but is a decreasing trend now. Education proved to be strongly significantly negatively related to fertility. Household income also proved to be significantly related to fertility, though less strongly and positively. Age at first marriage and use of family planning proved to be both significantly negatively related to number of children ever born. A remarkable feature of Gurung culture is the equal value attached to having sons and daughters, particularly given the prevailing preference for sons in Nepal.   The mothers groups (Amasamuha) in the villages have started to raise a collective voice against the exploitation of women. They point out that women should not be used only for men’s benefit but be treated as responsible citizens and be respected by the husband’s family for giving birth to children who can inherit the property. Programs and projects that are meant to empower women should be implemented effectively and efficiently. So far, many policies and plans formulated for women’s empowerment by the government exist only on paper. Women’s ownership of land remains a problematic issue, as is the case with women’s access to legal and safe abortion. In this study, women’s agency has been identified as an important factor in controlling population growth, safeguarding household livelihood and food security, and managing natural resources. Women’s agency is the significant link between fertility choices, the food resource environment, and household livelihood and food security. Gurung women’s agency plays a direct role in the timing of marriage, fertility choices, raising children, household formation and management, as well as in alleviating family food shortages. Apart from carrying out their productive and reproductive roles, women also participate in community activities and in efforts to protect the ecological environment. Women’s agency helps to balance population growth and food resources. However, in exercising their agency Gurung women face many practical problems and constraints. They are dependent on the availability of resources and economic conditions and often lack the necessary entitlements and empowerment. Though Gurung women can be shown to be “the pillar” of their household and family, and are active in economic production and social repro­duction, their skills and contributions to family and community welfare are still poorly recognized.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Niehof, Anke, Promotor
  • Price, Lisa, Co-promotor
Award date4 Oct 2007
Place of Publication[S.l.]
Print ISBNs9789085046967
Publication statusPublished - 2007


  • rural women
  • women
  • woman's status
  • human population
  • female fertility
  • environment
  • sustainability
  • women workers
  • agriculture
  • food security
  • rural areas
  • nepal
  • woman and society
  • gender

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