Bridges over the mountain ranges: ethnography on the complexities of transition in women’s social position in Nepalese rural communities

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisMonograph


While one can cite a wide range of local and international development co-operation promoting social change in the social position of women in Nepal, one also sees changes arising from local communities themselves. Local and international concepts of change do not always coincide; indeed they sometimes clash. The need for change and development in women’s social position is a given in development discourses, yet the definitions of change and development are complex, incorporating as they do colonial and imperial power structures intertwined with local hierarchies and inequalities. Alongside these considerations, one finds traditional elements that support women’s wellbeing and social change in communities, yet are not always recognised in development discourses and practices. In this ethnographic inquiry in the field of social work, I analyse the change process(es) in the women’s social position in Nepalese rural communities. I view social change as a complex transition towards multiple goals with varying rhythms. My analysis lies at the intersections of the international and local, and conceptual and practical knowledge bases. The study seeks to contribute to the discussion on international social work, with particular emphasis on decolonising and feminist approaches. My main research question is: How can one promote ethically sustainable social change processes with the women in globally and locally marginalised communities? I also ask how is the women’s social position in Nepalese rural communities shaped at the intersection of traditions and transition; how do the global and local driving forces reshape the women’s social position; and how are the women’s perspectives and environments that promote the transition in their social position related to the international paradigms of development and social change. My analytical focus is on the activism and perspectives of the women participating in the research in their particular environment and their links with communal and societal structures and international politics. My primary research material consists of the data collected in six months of ethnographic fieldwork (from 2012 to 2013) and in return visits to Nepal totaling an additional month (in 2014, 2015 & 2016) working with two women’s communities in rural Nepal. The research encounters took place in the communities’ daily contexts and the registered organisations that local women had established. The data include group, pair and individual discussions with the women, as well as my participatory observation. The study takes account of the women’s perspectives from multiple social positions, from both the centres and the margins of the communities. My earlier experiences with communities elsewhere in Nepal, gained in seven different periods of living and working in the country (during 2005–2011), provided in-depth background knowledge of the context. Throughout the study I reflect on questions of ethical knowledge production and epistemological hierarchies and privileges. The research also discusses how equality and social justice are promoted within social work research, on the level of both ideology and practice. The findings illustrate that the women assumed diverse roles and positions in their communities and daily settings. These positions were actualised in the women’s social relationships and communal roles—as wives, daughters-in-law, mothers, ‘sisters’, community activists and leaders—as well as in their duties and responsibilities—maintaining the household, nurturing, ensuring survival, and representing culture and religion. The analysis indicates that the women were subject to multiple social restrictions but that they also played an essential role in their communities, one which expanded to bringing about transformations. The women’s aims in and tools for producing social change were diverse and linked to their daily realities and traditions as well as to their close relation to the land and spirituality. Their goals culminated on a concrete level in improving their means of livelihood and fighting poverty, and on an abstract level in their being seen and heard. The research highlights the value of the traditions that supported the women’s wellbeing and of the cultural and religious practices and ideologies that they sought to maintain. It also underscores the importance of taking these elements into account in development discourses and practices. I reflect on the women’s perspectives in the light of feminist and decolonising theorisation. This theoretical analysis led me to identify five goals of the transition in the women’s social position: decolonisation of subjectivities, renegotiation of social hierarchies, decolonisation of epistemologies, feminisation of the economy, and redistribution of space. Achieving these aims requires critical reflection on global and local power imbalances and recognition of the hierarchies between the different actors within the transition process. The research indicates that the focal transition in the women’s social position was pervaded by power imbalances that created ruptures and transgressions in social, gendered, spatial and epistemological dimensions. The study argues that changes towards greater social justice can be achieved by bridging the gaps between the epistemologies from the Global South and North, centers and margins, practice and theory as well as spirituality and rationality. The research prompts the conclusion that ethically sustainable change in women’s social position in the global and local margins is promoted by solidarity that includes dialogue, alliance and exchange, on both the conceptual level and in practice. The inquiry provides insights on the value of striving for holistic inclusion and of respect for diversities as a basis for locally relevant and contextually specific social work practice.
Translated title of the contributionSillat yli vuorten : Etnografia naisten sosiaalisen aseman kompleksisesta muutoksesta nepalilaisissa maalaisyhteisöissä
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Laitinen, Merja, Supervisor
  • Hurtig, Johanna, Supervisor
Place of PublicationRovaniemi
Print ISBNs978-952-337-008-1
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jun 2017
MoEC publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)

Field of science

  • Social work

Citation for this output