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  • Main languages: Nepali is the official language of Nepal; 44.86 per cent of the population speak it as their mother tongue according to the 2021 census. A total of 124 languages are spoken as mother tongues in the country, including Maithili (11.05 per cent), Bhojpuri (6.24 per cent), Tharu (5.88 per cent), Tamang (4.88 per cent), Bajjika (3.89 per cent), Avadhi (2.96 per cent), Nepalbhasa (Newar) (2.96 per cent), Magar Dhut (2.78 per cent), Doteli (1.7 per cent) and Urdu (1.42 per cent).

    Minority and indigenous communities: Nepal is an ethnically complex and diverse country with numerous indigenous and linguistic communities. Altogether 142 castes and ethnic groups are reported in the 2021 census, which is 17 more groups recognized than in the 2011 Census, including the Rana Tharu, Bhumihar, Karmarong and Done groups. Only 59 ethnic groups are officially listed as indigenous peoples or indigenous nationalities as per the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) Act, 2002. Based on socio-economic indicators, the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) classifies these groups into five categories as  ‘Endangered’, ‘Highly marginalized’, ‘Marginalized’, ‘Disadvantaged’ and ‘Advantaged’. A high-level task force had recommended including an additional 22 ethnic groups in the indigenous nationalities in 2010 under the scope of NFDIN Act: however, no decision has been made about this.

    Informal analysis of the 2021 census figures puts the total population of officially recognized indigenous nationalities at around 10 million, comprising at least 35 per cent of the total population. However, indigenous organizations claim the actual size of the indigenous population would be closer to 50 per cent. The total population of indigenous and other ethnic minority groups would certainly be higher than the official estimate, if some currently unrecognized groups were also included. Several indigenous peoples and other minorities are not officially recognized.

    As per the most recent census, the current populations of major indigenous peoples are  Magar (6.9 per cent), Tharu (6.2 per cent), Tamang (5.62 per cent), Newar (4.6 per cent), Rai (2.2 per cent), Gurung (1.86 per cent) and Yakthung/Limbu (1.42 per cent). There are 34 other officially identified indigenous peoples such as Thakali, Bote, Raute, Hayu, Jirel, Kusunda whose population is less than 0.1 percent of the total population. Other minority groups include Dalits such as Bishwokarma (5.04 per cent), Pariyar (1.97 per cent), Mijar (1.55 per cent), Teli (1.48 per cent), Chamar/Harijan/Ram (1.35 per cent). Musalman/Muslim (4.86 per cent) and Yadav (4.21 per cent) are other minorities with major population.

    Major religions: Until Nepal was declared a secular state in 2008, Hinduism was the official religion. According to the 2021 census, 81.19 per cent (23.68 million) of the population practice Hinduism. The Hindu religious community can be subdivided into Hill Hindus, comprising Bahuns or Brahmins, Thakuris, and Chhettris, and Terai (southern plains) Hindus, comprising Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi linguistic communities, among others. There are also 2.39 million Buddhists (8.21 per cent), 1.48 million Muslims (5.09 per cent), 924,204 Kirats (3.17 per cent), 512,313 Christians (1.76 per cent), and 102,048 Prakriti/nature worshippers (0.35 per cent). Other religions are Bon (67,223), Jain (2,398), Bahá’í (537) and Sikh (1496) (2021 Census).

    Hindu caste groups such as Brahmins and Chhettris have traditionally dominated the Nepali State, and the language and culture projected from the centre have been those of the Hindu populations of the hill. The indigenous peoples in the hills who mostly speak Tibeto-Burman languages (such as Tamang, Newar, Magar, Limbu, Gurung, Rai and others) as well as those in the south such as Tharu, Rajbanshi and others have been marginalized in government, while the Terai population in the south, although mainly Hindus but Madhesi language speakers, have felt poorly served in terms of the distribution of public resources.

  • Environment

    Nepal is surrounded by India on three sides and Tibet, to the north. Despite its small geographical coverage, it is rich in biodiversity and has a remarkably varied landscape. However, it is highly vulnerable to water-induced disasters and other extreme events such as floods, droughts, storms, landslides, forest fires, soil erosion and avalanches. These challenges are worsening as a result of climate change, as are other pressing environmental concerns such as water pollution. Nepal has eight of the world’s ten highest mountains, which includes Mount Everest (‘Sagarmatha’ in Nepali). Nepal’s capital is Kathmandu, which is also its largest city.

    History

    Nepal has a long and fascinating history. The spread of Buddhism, its displacement by Hinduism and the induction of the caste system are significant historical occurrences with major contemporary dimensions. The modern history of Nepal may be thought of as starting with the Gurkha ruler Prithvi Narayan Shah’s conquest of Kathmandu valley in 1769, bringing under one rule the kingdoms of Patan, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu. The expansionist policies of Prithvi Narayan Shah and his successors resulted in the borders of their empire stretching as far as the River Sutlej to the west, with significant inroads in the Gangetic plains in the South. This expansion, however, brought the Gurkhas – inhabitants of the small Gurkha hill state, now part of Nepal – into conflict with China, and their subsequent defeat in 1816 at the hands of the British resulted in a peace treaty which, with subsequent minor adjustments, represents the present borders of Nepal. The time span between 1816 to 1846 was a period of political strife and intrigue, which culminated in the seizure of power by Jung Bahadur, who adopted the prestigious title of Rana and proclaimed himself Prime Minster for life. The office of Rana was made hereditary, with Rana descendants ruling Nepal until the end of the Second World War, although the Shah dynasty continued subsequently to occupy the throne.

    The British withdrawal from India in 1947 had serious consequence to the Ranas, who were then faced with a number of movements for political reform. King Tribhuvan briefly fled into exile in India, lending his support to the anti-Rana movement. The Ranas finally yielded to India’s pressure, and King Tribhuvan returned in 1951 with full powers restored to the monarchy. He established a government comprising Ranas and members of the National Congress Party (NCP), but this coalition was short-lived. Tribhuvan’s son and successor, Mahendra, who succeeded in 1955, decided that partyless elections and the panchayat (an advisory body appointed by the King) system were the most suitable system of government. The King selected the cabinet and Prime Minister, and appointed a large segment of the National Assembly, thus retaining political power.

    A wave of political unrest and dissatisfaction with the government culminated in the Jana Andolan I or Peoples Movement of 1990. King Birendra, who had reigned since 1972, conceded to the demands of democracy and accountability by dissolving the cabinet, lifting the ban on political parties and inviting opposition parties to form an interim government. By November 1990 a new Constitution guaranteeing free speech, human rights and a constitutional monarchy was in place. Under its provisions the King remained commander-in-chief of the armed forces but could not make executive decisions without consulting the Prime Minister and cabinet. The old panchayat was replaced by a Parliament consisting of a directly elected House of Representatives and a smaller National Assembly. From 1991, control of the government alternated between the NCP and the United Communist Party of Nepal.

    Between 1996 and 2006, the country suffered a protracted civil conflict. The outbreak of a Maoist insurgency in western Nepal resulted in large-scale displacement and urban migration to cities such as Kathmandu or abroad. Though the exact numbers are unknown, official estimates suggest that 16,278 were killed and some 200,000 displaced as a result of the conflict. Further unrest and instability resulted from the massacre in 2001 of King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya and other members of the royal family. The King’s brother, Prince Gyanendra, was subsequently declared king. In the years that followed, the country underwent a period of political turbulence with a succession of prime ministers dismissed before Gyanendra declared a state of emergency in February 2005 and restored Nepal’s absolute monarchy.  This period saw much unrest and political upheaval before, in the face of continued protests, parliament agreed unanimously in 2006 to curtail the king’s powers (the pro-democracy movement was also known as Jana Andolan II).

    In December 2007, parliament agreed to abolish the monarchy. This was part of a peace deal with the Maoists, who had joined an interim government earlier that year following the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) agreed in 2006.  On May 2008, the monarchy was abolished by the first constitutional assembly and Nepal declared a democratic republic. The post-conflict era has seen increasing visibility for the social movements of indigenous peoples, women and Madhesis from the Southern Terai Plains in Nepalese public life, though marginalized Dalit communities and other indigenous communities are still sidelined from mainstream politics.

    The 2015 Constitution of Nepal, passed shortly after the devastating earthquake that killed almost 9,000 people and injured thousands more, emphasized the protection and promotion of diverse ethnicities, languages, cultures and religions, and an end to all forms of discrimination and oppression. Replacing the 2007 interim Constitution, it established Nepal as a federal democracy.  Shortly after, in October 2015, Bidhya Devi Bhandari was elected as Nepal’s first female President.

    Nepal’s new governance system has been established at the central, provincial and local levels following the declaration of a federal government, under the new 2015 Constitution and with elected bodies in three tiers in 2017. The central level government is supported by seven federal provinces/states, their own chief ministers and legislative powers, with further divisions into districts and municipalities. A trend likely to be nurtured by the more democratic environment is the development of stronger group consciousness and demands for a greater share of political power and recognition, whether based on ethnicity, language or both.

    In 2022, 59 political parties participated in the latest general elections through the mixed direct (first past-the-post voting) and proportional (party list proportional representation) election system. Out of 165 candidates elected through direct elections to the lower house of the federal parliament, only 8 indigenous nationalities were represented in the house for a total of 42 candidates – a marginal increase from the 34 candidates belonging to indigenous nationalities in 2017 elections. That means 25% of the total directly elected were persons belonging to various indigenous groups although indigenous peoples account for more than 35% of the population. On the other hand, 54% of those directly elected to the house were from dominant Khas Arya caste groups although they constitute less than one-third of the national population.

    The same year, in the direct elections for 330 seats in seven provincial parliaments, 24 indigenous nationalities were represented for a total of 115 candidates i.e. 35% of the total and better than in the federal parliament. The representation of indigenous peoples in the federal and provincial parliaments could be higher if candidates nominated through party list proportional system. However, their representation still dwarves the over-representation of the dominant caste groups in the parliaments and all State structures while many small indigenous peoples and minorities are still not represented in them. Thus, there are calls for electoral reforms for a fully proportional electoral system based on population. Further, the parliamentarians belonging to various indigenous peoples elected through different political parties often mainly carry their party agenda than truly represent their peoples or forward their aspirations. Thus, indigenous rights activists have been demanding representation of indigenous peoples through their own representative institutions such as their traditional governance bodies. More intensive study is needed to analyze the representation of indigenous peoples and ethnic/minority groups in Nepal’s parliaments as well as local governments as the official election results do not provide data disaggregated by ethnicity.

    The Civil Service Act of 2007 has been revised and amended with the provision of a 45 per cent reservation allotted to indigenous peoples/nationalities (27 per cent), women (33 per cent), Madhesis (22 per cent), Dalits (9 per cent), persons with disabilities (5 per cent) and people from ‘backward’ regions (4 per cent), to support inclusive development and employment opportunities for long excluded groups, including indigenous peoples and minorities. While this system aims to increase the participation of under-represented groups and communities in Nepal, it needs to be strictly monitored and followed in every sector.

    Regional discrimination also persists, particularly for poorer and remote communities, and there have also been cases of members of dominant groups misusing the reservation quotas. Some political parties and leaders, for instance, appoint indigenous women as representatives to fulfill the requirement for 33 per cent women without affording them any decision-making power. Consequently, the reservations alone are not enough to ensure effective and meaningful participation of indigenous peoples and minorities.

    In the new federal government as defined by the 2015 Constitution, Nepal is an independent, sovereign, secular, inclusive and federal democratic republic with protection of fundamental rights including economic and socio-cultural rights, rights of women, Dalits, indigenous peoples and other minority groups. It further emphasizes anti-discriminatory actions to support poor, marginalized and socially disadvantaged communities through inclusive and effective participation of these communities in the governance structures. Moreover, the Constitution provides for the creation of independent constitutional commissions for women, Dalits, indigenous nationalities, Madhesis, Muslims and other communities, functioning alongside the National Human Right Commission and able to recommend positive legal and policy reforms to aid the communities in question.

    The traditional concept of governance has been questioned for its ineffectiveness and inefficiency. The need for inclusive governance, incorporating the country’s variety of minorities, indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups, is therefore particularly important in a country like Nepal, with its broad cultural, ethnic, geographical and climatic diversity. The political changes in 1990 and 2006/07, the elections in 2017 and 2022, and the reservation amendments to the Civil Service Act have brought momentum to the process of mainstreaming the country’s excluded communities into its governance system.

  • Nepal has made some positive progress in the area of indigenous and minority rights, including through the signing of a new Constitution in 2015 that presented a much more inclusive framework for the country. However, the historical domination of dominant groups over other communities, including indigenous peoples and minorities such as Dalits, Madhesis and Muslims, as well as persons with disabilities and LGBTQ+ communities, persists in many aspects of Nepalese life. A legal review has found many constitutional provisions discriminatory or not compliant with the rights of indigenous peoples and their movement. Despite being a signatory to a wide range of relevant international treaties and instruments, the government has yet to fully integrate the promotion and protection of minority and indigenous rights into domestic legislation. As a result, members of marginalized communities continue to advocate for the realization of their rights. In Nepal’s patriarchal social context, women and girls from minority and indigenous communities frequently face multiple and intersectional forms of discrimination.

    Social exclusion and discrimination in Nepal are mainly based on caste and socio-cultural divisions and the patriarchal system, with indigenous nationalities (the Janajatis) and Dalits being particularly disadvantaged. A recurring issue is lack of representation in the country’s politics, government and civil service. There have been some measures in recent years to address this. For instance, in 2007 reservation policies were passed to guarantee 45 per cent of positions in the civil service for women, Dalits, indigenous nationalities, Madhesis, persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups – but difficulties remain. While some communities have increased their representation since these policies were put in place, it is the case that long dominant groups such as Brahmins and Chhettris continue to secure a disproportionate number of these positions. For instance, during the 2018/19 year, out of the 4,574 candidates put forward for government recruitment, 34.9 per cent had a Hill Brahmin background, despite making up just 12.2 per cent of the population in the 2011 Census. Tharus, on the other hand, a widely marginalized indigenous community who made up some 6.6 per cent of the total population, only comprised 3.9 per cent of civil service entrants during the same period.

    Nepal’s history of autocracy, political instability and absence of democratic institutions, when aligned with its underdeveloped infrastructure, has led to many violations of individual and collective human rights. Every section of the community has been affected, but Nepal’s indigenous peoples and minorities have been particularly vulnerable and open to abuse. For example, the Private Forest Nationalization Act 1957 and subsequent legislation paved the way for administration of forests, which largely taken over by the state. This resulted in grave injustices, largely arising from corruption among Brahmin forest administrators.

    Language issues have also centered on the status of Nepali as the official language and suggestions have ranged from allowing other languages to enjoy the same status by abolishing Nepali as the only official language. The Constitution of 1990 provided Nepali as the language of the nation while all the languages spoken as the mother tongue in various parts of Nepal were called ‘the national languages of Nepal’. The 2015 Constitution provides that ‘All languages spoken as the mother tongues in Nepal are the languages of the nation.’ However, it also stipulates that ‘The Nepali language written in Devanagiri script shall be the official language of Nepal’, though provincial governments can select one or more national languages spoken by a majority of people to be used as official language.

    The issue of education in languages other than Nepali was long a source of contention among minorities and indigenous peoples, feeding into a broader pattern of assimilation and marginalization. The 2015 Constitution’s stipulation that all children have the right to basic education in their first language was in this regard a milestone for the country and its diverse linguistic communities, the majority of whom do not speak Nepali as their mother tongue. This reform has received widespread support, and may help improve low literacy levels in Nepal, particularly among its minority and indigenous populations. Previous studies have highlighted significant gaps in literacy, school attendance and other indicators of educational attainment between marginalized minorities and indigenous peoples and the more dominant groups in Nepali society.

    Other prime areas of concern for indigenous peoples in Nepal have been dispossession of and displacement from their lands and other associated rights abuses in various contexts. Studies indicate that indigenous peoples such as Tharu and Limbu have lost their land rights through a combination of abrupt changes in land tenure laws, the influx of Brahmin and Chhettri settlers and the communities’ lack of literacy and awareness of legal procedures. In this process, land once cultivated as common land has gradually gone into the hands of migrant groups that are able to register land they initially cultivated as tenants. Land reform legislation appears to have hurt several indigenous peoples, as has the mismanagement of compulsory saving schemes. Quite frequently, lack of knowledge of legal and bureaucratic workings has made indigenous communities vulnerable.

    Specifically, in the context of indigenous Tharus, many indigenous communities in the Terai region have been enslaved under the debt bondage system after they were dispossessed of their lands. Kamaiya, a system of bonded agricultural labour, was abolished in 2000 and the Kamaiya (Labor) Prohibition Act was passed in 2002.  Nevertheless, these inequities have persisted and the children of former kamaiya Tharu families risk becoming child labourers. The system took many other forms, notably the kamlari system of bonded domestic labour, which disproportionately affected Tharu women and girls who faced exploitation and abuse at the hands of their employers, including sexual violence and trafficking. The government sought to eliminate this practice when it officially abolished the system of bonded domestic slave labourers in June 2013. The decision was prompted in part by protests against the police for refusing to investigate the case of Srijana Chaudhary, a 12-year-old kamlari who had died following burn injuries. Civil society groups working against bonded labour in Nepal have welcomed the abolition, but further implementation of existing laws and prosecution of those responsible will be crucial to effectively end the practice. In particular, as the discrimination and exclusion of young Tharu girls and women persists, they continue to face a high risk of exploitation and abuse. Consequently, the struggle for full emancipation is ongoing.

    An increasing challenge faced disproportionately by indigenous peoples in Nepal is that of displacement from their traditional lands and cultural sites in the name of ‘conservation’ and ‘development’ projects. Such projects are usually carried out without the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the concerned communities in Nepal. This is in contravention of the 2015 Constitution and various international Instruments, such as the ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Nepal is a signatory. However, these violations continue to be carried out and often challenges from communities result in police brutality and other forms of cultural suppression.

    In the name of environmental conservation, the establishment of protected areas in the country have displaced or otherwise impacted indigenous communities and their ancestral lands. Eighteen of the twenty protected areas of the country, including twelve national parks, covering about 23 per cent of the national land area, are in the ancestral domains claimed by various indigenous groups. Over the last 50 years, national parks, conservation areas and hunting reserves have been set up in indigenous territories relying upon the army and a model of militarization for security. Those areas based on a fortress conservation model have generated perpetual conflicts between the park and indigenous and other communities living around the protected areas.

    A representative case in point is the myriad rights violations faced by Indigenous communities due to the establishment of Chitwan National Park (earlier called Royal Chitwan National Park) in 1973. The Park constitutes traditional homelands of many indigenous communities, mainly Tharu, Bote, Darai, Kumal and Majhi, who are highly dependent on the resources in the park for their livelihoods, cultures and identities. The indigenous communities were not consulted in the establishment of the park, its subsequent expansion and inscription in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

    Indigenous and local communities were forcibly expelled from their homes and villages, as well as lands. It is estimated that about 20,000 people, only from the Tharu group, were relocated from the park. While the history of relocation has not been entirely recorded, it is recounted that ‘the [Nepali Army] soldiers forcibly removed all the villages located inside the designated boundary of the park, houses were burned down, fields and houses were trampled by elephants, men, women and children were threatened sometimes at gunpoint. Studies have reported torture and killing in the name of anti-poaching measures in the park that gave immunity to the park rangers, as well as harassment, sexual abuse and assault of women by forest guards while collecting forest products have been widely reported. While the reports have also alleged the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of supporting such human rights violation, WWF has denied its involvement.

    Violence against indigenous and local communities at the hands of park officials, rangers and army personnel have continued to date. Recently, an indigenous Chepang man was killed in July 2020 after he and a group of friends were detained and allegedly tortured by soldiers when they entered the park to collect snails while a group of park rangers allegedly set fire to two houses and destroyed eight others using elephants – the houses belonged to landless Chepangs, whom authorities accused of encroaching on park property. Again, in March 2022, park officials and soldiers set fire to around 20 huts of Chepangs living in the park, displacing around 100 people.  Further, there have been reported cases of exploitation of labour by the army, whereby people from indigenous Bote and Majhi communities have been forced, under threat and even through physical abuse, to perform unpaid labour such as cleaning of army camps, clearance of paths, collection of vegetables and fishing for the army.  There are similar reports of displacement and violence against indigenous peoples and other locals, including abuses against women, in other protected areas, including Bardiya National Park, Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve and Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve.

    Similarly, hydropower and infrastructure development projects, often called ‘national pride projects’, have also primarily affected indigenous communities. Hydropower projects have deprived local communities of their agricultural and forest lands and river access, which are sources for both livelihoods and cultures. As of 2024, 144 hydropower projects (more than 1 MW) are in operation in the country while hundreds more are under construction or being surveyed or studied. Nepal’s total electricity production crossed 3,000 MW while its hydroelectricity potential is estimated to exceed 72 GW. Nepal aims to generate 30 GW by 2035; 15 GW of which are planned for export, particularly to India and Bangladesh. Accordingly, hydropower developers and financiers are increasingly pushing for large-scale hydropower projects, including reservoir type and cascade dams, aimed for exporting electricity to India and Bangladesh. Those projects have significant impacts on indigenous communities and the wider environment.

    As a result, opposition of the communities against such projects are growing as evident in the resistance of indigenous Majhi communities to various dams being constructed along the Sunkoshi River in eastern Nepal. For the Majhis, who are traditionally fisherfolks, the river is not only important for their livelihoods but also holds a spiritual value. Local Majhi people refer to the river as their ‘uncle’. Currently, three dams are at different stages of development under Sunkoshi-Marin Diversion Multipurpose Project and Sunkoshi-2 and Sunkoshi-3 hydropower projects – the latter two are mega dams with large reservoirs. All those projects will have disproportionate impacts on Majhi communities while also adversely affecting the river’s ecosystems. Consequently, all three projects have raised various concerns among the affected Majhi communities, who they have demanded scrapping of the Sunkoshi-2 hydropower project altogether. Hydropower projects, including power transmission lines, have been contentious among indigenous peoples and other affected locals across the country – some of them have even lodged complaints to the international financial institutions supporting the projects for remedy with partial and full success.

    Similarly, large-scale development projects, especially in the Kathmandu Valley, are affecting indigenous and other local farming communities. Indigenous Newar have been protesting against the appropriation of their land for a Fast Track expressway, a planned ‘smart’ or satellite city (one of four that have been proposed), and other infrastructure schemes in Khokana and neighbouring Bungamati, south of the capital city. Demonstrations in July 2020 led to over a dozen protestors and four police being injured. The communities were protesting against the lack of participation and appropriate compensation. Their representatives have suggested alternative sites, but to no avail.

    In an emerging issue, climate change is increasingly impacting indigenous peoples in Nepal, which is ranked 4th most vulnerable country to climate change according to German Watch. Several reports indicate climate change induced extreme weather events (such as extreme drought and rainfall) and unpredictable weather patterns (such as prolonged summer) have caused food insecurity, pressure on livelihoods and local economy, social and health impacts on indigenous communities in a disproportionate manner as they live in geographically challenged places with close relationship with the resources and environment. While indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge is recognized as useful to finding solutions to climate change, indigenous rights and aspirations are not fully incorporated into climate change related policies and programs in Nepal. Meanwhile, the government has been implementing REDD+ strategy and projects, including with support from the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, UN-REDD Programme, World Wildlife Fund and other international agencies – for example, in a Terai Arc Landscape program, which includes land restoration in various protected areas that has helped Nepal claim the result-based payment of USD 45 million. More research is needed to understand how climate change responses such as REDD+ and carbon trading are being implemented in Nepal in relation to the rights of indigenous peoples.

    The dynamics of social exclusion vary between different marginalized groups. For instance, Dalits have had to contend with discrimination on the basis of ‘untouchability’ in the Hindu caste system. Dalits are considered among the most marginalized in Nepal and tend to live in remote, disaster-prone areas, where they often perform dangerous and low-skilled jobs. Nearly half of all Dalits live below the poverty line, compared to one quarter of the general population. Their discrimination was illustrated by the limited assistance they received after the devastating earthquake that hit parts of the country in April 2015. According to a report by the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), some 60 per cent of Dalits felt there had been intentional negligence in the provision of rescue and humanitarian assistance in the wake of the tragedy due to caste-based discrimination. The study found that a majority of affected Dalits remained homeless over a month after the disaster, when nearly 80 per cent of higher-caste communities had received tents or tarpaulins. Despite being legally prohibited, caste-based discrimination continues to impact Dalits from an early age, including in schools.  Educational disadvantage has a lasting impact on their lives, reflected in lower literacy levels. According to the National Social Inclusion Survey, conducted in 2012, only 52.4 per cent of Dalits were literate compared to a national average of 65.9 per cent. For Madhesi Dalits, however, the proportion was even less at 34.5 per cent.

    Further, and perhaps as an indication of the patriarchal system that exists in Nepal, Nepali women are still unable to pass on their citizenship to their children unless the father is also a citizen. Children born to Nepali mothers and foreign fathers are barred from holding a high political office as they can only obtain ‘naturalized citizenship’. This is rooted in patriarchal notions of Hindu-based nationalism, which perceives women – especially from the marginalized Madhesi minority inhabiting the plains near the Indian border – as potential threats to national security. The policy has been defended by male politicians who claim that it is necessary to prevent men from neighbouring countries marrying Nepali women and creating undesirable population growth. As such, Nepali women have effectively been branded second-class citizens. Among the most severely affected are Madhesi women in the southern Terai region, where marriages across the Indian border are common. Lower-caste and socially marginalized minorities are likely to be hit the hardest, potentially fueling statelessness in southern Nepal.

    Furthermore, persons with disabilities, particularly those belonging to indigenous and minority groups in Nepal, face multiple layers of discrimination. An estimated 83% of indigenous persons with disabilities face discrimination throughout their life, and over half are estimated to earn below average in Nepal. There is a continuing belief that persons with disabilities are atoning for sins from their past life, which is a result of a general lack of education and awareness of disabilities in Nepalese society. Therefore, whilst steps are being taken to incorporate voices of persons with disabilities in policy creation and human rights protection, the nationwide ignorance towards disability has resulted in overwhelming social, economic and educational marginalization.

    Much of the discrimination and ostracization faced by indigenous and minority groups was exacerbated during Covid-19 pandemic and the government response to the crisis. Issues such as unemployment, limited mobility and inadequate healthcare negatively affected marginalized communities that were already facing discrimination. For example, education enrollment dropped due to lack of access to online education, and there was a rise in online trafficking that particularly targeted women and girls, who were unable to leave their homes, and who were not adequately protected. Whilst many of these issues existed prior to the pandemic, the lack of protective services specifically allocated to already vulnerable groups meant that the struggles they have faced historically were exacerbated.

    In addition, Nepal has hosted a large refugee population from neighbouring Bhutan., some of whom have been living in camps for decades. Refugees were driven from their homes in Bhutan in 1990 and 1991 through a combination of denial of citizenship and restrictive land laws: over 98 per cent of them were ethnically Nepali-speaking Hindus who are called ‘Lhotshampas’, (literally ‘those living in the south’), while the other 2 per cent were Buddhists. Denied their right to citizenship and systematically deprived of their property, these refugees had to subsist in poverty and squalor in UNHCR established camps. Though there have been many rounds of talks between Nepal and Bhutan and the UN, there has been virtually no progress made over the decades. Nepal has refused to grant citizenship to the refugees and claims it was an issue between the Bhutanese government and the refugees, Bhutan argued that it was an issue between Bhutan and Nepal. Some 113,500 refugees have been resettled between 2007 and 2019, the majority in the United States as well as Australia, Canada and various European countries. Nepal’s refugee population now numbers 19,600: around a third (32 per cent) are Bhutanese and almost two thirds (64 per cent) Tibetan.

Updated June 2024

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