Education erodes polyandry in rural Nepal

By Lochana Sharma  |  Jan. 16, 2013 at 5:37 PM
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KATHMANDU, Nepal (GPI)-- Tanzen Lama, 31, became an outcast in his family when he married Nabina Lama, 27, a woman from his village. His family practices polyandry, the practice of having more than one male mate or husband at the same time. They are from Humla, a socially and economically isolated district in the northwestern corner of Nepal, along the border with China. The second son of his family, Lama has been living like a refugee with friends in Simikot, the district headquarters of Humla. He can’t live in his family’s house because he practices monogamy. “Everyone in my family is angry with me because I married the girl I loved without family’s consent,” he says. “Therefore, I have not taken my wife to my house.” In a family that practices polyandry, children lose claim to the parental property if they get married on their own. Lama says that his brother’s wife was also angry with him for not taking her as a “common wife.” Traditionally, poverty and a lack of education have perpetuated the custom of polyandry, Lama says. He has finished his School Leaving Certificate and is working at a nongovernmental organization in Simikot. His wife works as a nurse in the district hospital. He says he hopes that in a few years, his family’s anger will abate so that he can return home with his wife. He would like a portion of the family's property where he can live independently with his wife. “Polyandry has caused a lot of problems for many people,” he says. “But the good thing is, polyandry practice has decreased.” Ethnic groups in isolated districts in northern Nepal have a history of practicing polyandry, with brothers of the same family sharing a common wife. Poor economic conditions made it difficult for each son to afford to support his own wife. A lack of access to education also perpetuated the tradition. But now, expanded opportunities for education, communication, transportation and income generation are leading more people in the Lama clan in the Humla district to opt for monogamous “love marriages.” The government has been establishing more community schools, while one women’s rights organization campaigns against polyandry. The Lamas of Humla are an ethnic Mongoloid community that practices Buddhism. Lama is the common family name in the community. The Lama clan accounts for 7,000 of Humla district’s 50,000 people, according to the 2010 district profile published by the District Development Committee. Half are male, and half are female. Yet polyandry has been in practice by the Lamas for ages, says sociologist Krishna Bahadur Bhattachan, a professor at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. But it is now declining. “At present, only 10 percent of the Lamas practice polyandry,” he says. The number of people continuing to practice polyandry in Nepal can’t be estimated precisely, Bhattachan says. But it is still prevalent among groups in the districts of northern Nepal bordering China of Humla, Mugu, Mustang, Dolpa, Sankhuwasabha, Rasuwa and Manang. There are no laws against polyandry in Nepal. Chyampha Singh Lama, 70, a Humla resident, says that in the families that practice polyandry, the common wife manages her time among her different husbands. Families consider the eldest brother to be the father of all children and the rest to be uncles, he says. The mother has the right to name the actual father of the child, but the eldest brother has more rights over the wife than the rest of the brothers do. Sunam Lama, 40, says that if a younger brother remarries after the common wife gives birth to his child, the elder brother takes responsibility for the child. If a person remarries after having intercourse with his sister-in-law and wife, then he has to compensate her and can’t claim the parental property.

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