Couple of weeks back, one of my friends was complaining how a woman, less qualified than him, got the promotion he was eyeing for years. He blamed the “misguided” affirmative action policy that prefers, according to him, less qualified minorities and women over qualified men from the majority.
I was appropriately horrified at his views. He chose to forget the years of discriminatory policies designed by those in the majority to keep back the minorities and women. The so called “low caste” citizens, women shackled by centuries of culture and religion based discrimination and those financially backward-he chose to ignore all of them who were kept far away from opportunities by the society. Now that the government is taking steps to rectify, in however limited measures, the terrible injustices committed in the past, my friend’s sees affirmative action as legally sanctioned or reverse discrimination.
For decades Nepal’s government and the system was complicit in devising a barrier against women and minorities. Discrimination was institutionalized in many government agencies-until recently women could not serve in the Army except in technical branches, citizens with physical disability had limited opportunity in education and employment, marginalized communities like the “lower castes”, ” untouchables” were forced to accept menial jobs with very little pay even when they had qualification for a better paying position.
Society played along with the government in enforcing these barriers. Thus, creating a vicious cycle of denied opportunity and poverty for women and minorities.
My friend and those who believe that affirmative action too promotes discrimination but against the “majority” have conveniently disregarded the face that the injustice meted against women and minorities for centuries cannot be “fixed” in a year or two, even a decade is insufficient to wipe the slate clean and call it an even playing field.
Let’s go back to about 60 years. My grandmother is a young child of 5. Her parents think of her as a burden and all she gets are leftovers -food, clothes, care, and love. She is married off at 8, pushed to a life of hard labor never having a chance at education, career, and life outside her kitchen. To be fair, majority of Nepalese then lived in absolute poverty without access to healthcare and education. In her case, her brothers did manage to go to school- a makeshift facility run by local priest. Later, when the family moved to a bigger city they went to a proper school, one even managed to get an engineering degree.
Most of the girls born in that era had a life similar to my grandmother. They were denied opportunities to better themselves, and as they became mothers, their daughters too suffered. If my grandmother had good education, then she could have contributed to household-not only financially but in many more ways that could have helped her children. She could better guide her children and grandchildren. Because she was pushed aside, our family and many more lost opportunities. The community, the city and nation as a whole suffered too.
We need affirmative action to set the mistakes that happened 60, 70, 80 years back, even a century back. Playing field for Nepali women is not even because their grandmothers and mothers were denied opportunities, which affected them too. So now, no matter how unjust it looks, they have to get preference. Similarly, those from disadvantaged communities like the “untouchables”, “lower castes” should also get preference.
As I mentioned earlier, affirmative action, on first action does look unjust. Why should a woman get a job because of her gender when there is an equally or more qualified man available for the job? Why should we look at caste, tribe or gender instead of looking at the person’s qualification and experience? It is true that affirmative action is a form of discrimination, but it is a positive force. It seeks to encourage those who have been historically and traditionally marginalized.
Then US chief justice Warren Burger said this about affirmative action in a case about desegregating a North Carolina school:
“All things being equal, with no history of discrimination, it might well be desirable to engage in solely race-neutral employment policies. But all things are not equal is a system that had been deliberately constructed and maintained to enforce racial discrimination.” This stands true for Nepal too; the country’s system for long benefited a particular gender, caste and class of people. Now is it time to set things straight.
Previously published at UPI Asia Online and Nepal Abroad.