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9 Apr 2019 | Blog

Stepping together for a sustainable future

Reflections on gendered roles in the yartsa gunbu economy

Sunayana Basnet

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The search for Himalayan gold in the highlands (Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya)

As I entered the conference hall on a cold December morning in Khalanga, Darchula, far-western Nepal, I noticed a group of men in conversation, laughing and drinking tea. In another corner of the room, four women were huddled up, quietly whispering to each other to avoid attracting any attention towards them – their demeanor in stark contrast to the men. Both the women and men belonged to yartsa gunbu-dependent communities who had come to participate in a cross-border experience-sharing workshop on biodiversity management in the Kailash Sacred Landscape. I was very keen to hear what the women had to say.

Yartsa gunbu is considered as Himalayan gold as it fetches the same money, or more, per weight as gold. As the workshop began, the topic of discussion right away was cash. Having read about the Himalayan gold rush – the scramble among mountain communities to squeeze all financial benefits from this resource – the enthusiasm of the participants about the revenue from yartsa gunbu was not surprising. There was even a heated discussion on revenue collection under the recently implemented federal governance system, with much confusion regarding the new roles of individuals and authorities.

During a workshop session dedicated to gender and social inclusion, the conversation shifted towards the role of women and children in the caterpillar fungus economy. Women who were previously quite reserved suddenly found their voice when a discussion regarding their children’s future began. The women voiced their concerns that the local youth have become highly dependent on yartsa gunbu as an income source and have been corrupted by the lucrative business. They pointed out that excessive alcohol consumption and gambling, as well as instances of violence, have become common in collection campsites.

The women also expressed the dilemma they face regarding the involvement of children in picking yartsa gunbu. On one hand they believe children can easily spot the caterpillar fungus, but on the other hand the children have to sacrifice months of their education during the collection season. Moreover, despite the increase in income for harvesters, there is a high risk of resource overexploitation, which not only greatly depletes an important income source for the next generation but also poses serious environmental risks across an increasingly vulnerable landscape. The women also spoke about how men assumed control of the financial aspect of the yartsa gunbu economy.

One of the men participating in the workshop, seemingly in response to the women’s concerns, criticized women for their lack of involvement in the sale of yartsa gunbu. He pointed out that women lack the know-how in this aspect and hence voluntarily surrender their collection to their husbands. However, the reality of the situation is much more complex. I was told that the number of yartsa gunbu women collectors were equal, if not more, in comparison to men. However, women’s roles extend beyond this; they must also tend to household chores and take care of the children at the collection campsites. These obligations limit women’s ability to network outside the community.

Women’s hard work in yartsa gunbu collection was generally appreciated by the men, but they were also quick to dictate how women should contribute more substantially. “Women should speak up and take on a stronger role to control the behaviour of their husbands, who often indulge in activities like gambling and consume alcohol at campsites,” said Chakra S Hyanki, Chairperson of the Api Nampa Conservation Area (ANCA) Management Council.

This turn of events – men considering women as inconsequential to decision making regarding the sale of yartsa gunbu but also holding them responsible for controlling men’s vices – made the women more vocal. I was very happy when Nanda Kuwar, a participant from the nearby Duhu Village, replied, “Why should women be responsible for controlling men’s behaviour? Being the decision makers, shouldn’t they be held accountable for their own actions?” None of the men responded.

Kuwar later shared her grievance with me: “Even though the constitution has given us rights, it is not implemented in the society”. This seems to be the essence of any gender-related conversation I’ve had, be it in the villages or cities.

The workshop session concluded with the agreement to conduct capacity-building programmes for women. However, will this solve the problem of gender inequality that is rooted within the mind? Nanda Kuwar’s question haunts me. Why should women police the men, when men are capable of making decisions on their own? Why is it that the men in that room wrestled financial power away from women, leaving women merely with the responsibility of governing men’s behaviour? Why were women incapable of selling yartsa gunbu but more than capable of raising children, who are the future?

The answer to all these questions lies in the way we think. As the ANCA Management Council Chairperson mentioned, women do need to step up. However, men must also step up along with women. Men can no longer take the back seat and hand over their unwanted responsibilities to women. Men should not just exercise their powers but also understand their responsibility towards the development of women in the society. There must be a balance in responsibilities today for a better tomorrow. The fight for equality cannot be fought by women alone – men must join in and work together.


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