How faith-based actors can help heal Nepal

Most people in secular nation subscribe to some form of religion but harmful traditional practices should be cast aside
How faith-based actors can help heal Nepal

A young Nepalese child from the Newari community is made up while taking part in Bel Bibaha (ritual marriage) in Kathmandu in this March 2016 file photo. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)

People may have different perspectives on development. For me, it is the optimal improvement of the integral quality of human life, with faith the driving force behind it.

Human development starts before birth, from the moment of conception, through growth and ending in death. All of these stages are influenced by faith, beliefs, values and familial and social norms.

These values not only provide a rich cultural tapestry but are also causative factors underlying social development. Fatalism, for example, including the acceptance of harmful traditions, has caused poverty to worsen.

In Nepal, faith-based groups have been working hard in the fields of health, education and community development for many decades. But development remains hamstrung by cultural malpractices and superstitions that are a legacy of the 'Dark Ages'.

I recall one incident of human sacrifice that took place in 2015 ostensibly to pray for good health and wealth. 

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Meanwhile, many females have lost their lives due to a social practice known as chhaupadi, which sees Hindu girls and women barred from participating in family activities while menstruating. They are made to wait in a small hut removed from the main house, often close to where the animals are kept outside, which puts them at risk of being bitten by snakes, attacked by wild animals, or raped; they can also fall ill from the unhygienic environment. This tradition is especially prevalent in western Nepal. 

Suicides are also a reflection of society's problems, with 15 people taking their own lives on average every day in Nepal, the statistics show.

Social evils inspired by religious misconceptions and cultural malpractices are the real obstacles to human development: they perpetuate this vicious circle produced by having so many people stuck in the poverty trap.

Examples include physical segregation based on the caste system, domestic violence, violence against children, child marriages, a preference for male babies, human sacrifices and accusations of witchcraft, to name but a few.

And of course, women and children are the ones who suffer the most.

Role of faith actors

I would say that religion is not only about doctrinal homily but is also full of social teachings for creating a just and humane society that encourages us to act against spiritual and physical poverty.

Despite Nepal being communist-led and constitutionally secular, most people subscribe to some religion. Therefore, their engagement and role in the development process is critical, essential and indispensable.

Religious institutions are trusted and well resourced. They are the key welfare service providers in terms of health care, education, foster homes and vocational training.

If we discourse more on the fundamental teaching of the doctrinal practices, religious values then faith actors become core driving force in reducing structural poverty.

Obviously, some may suspect their engagement in development is a way of proselytization. However, their service that extends beyond caste, creed and ethnicity should not be ignored.

Nonetheless, some development issues such as gender equality, especially the rights of the LGBT community, may clash with religious values and norms in this kind of society.

As such, faith sectors should not be marginalized from mainstream development in this secular-focused model.

The country lacks separate provisions to register and regulate religious properties, which forces all religious institutions to register as NGOs under the Association Registration Act (1977).

While faith-based institutions are distinguishable from NGOs, they have to adapt their working methodology in a secular lens.

Nevertheless, to achieve successful development, religion should be taken into consideration as both an obstacle and a form of support. Certainly, it can be used to offer strategies and resources.

Faith actors can contribute to development but faith alone is no panacea that can solve all related problems. Sometimes it can create conflict.

Other challenges include the high rate of unemployment among young people, the rising number of divorces and people who choose to remain single, narcotics abuse, people born into broken families, and sexual abuse. These are all areas where faith groups can play a crucial role in helping to improve society.

Religious leaders are often put on a pedestal. They can use this social prestige to act beyond their ritual practices, such as by engaging in peace building, raising social awareness of problems and advocating for people's rights.

If religion helps to strengthen a social environment that negatively affects women and children and sustains poverty, scripture should be reinterpreted in a way that uplifts human dignity in a gender-friendly way.

Interfaith dialogue could be a good opportunity for different groups to exchange best practices and monitor one another's malpractices.

Strengthening the community

Christians play a leading role in interfaith dialogue and development in Nepal; they reach outside their jurisdictions and actively work to develop partners, rather than just roaming around preaching the virtues of their own religion.

Faith actors can also play an important role in helping to change attitudes and traditions, bringing a paradigm shift to people's lives. Other faith communities could be encouraged to follow suit and engage similarly.

The situation should have changed with the advent of a new government, new laws and a restructuring of various state mechanisms, but the status quo still sees religious groups targeted.

This is especially true for Christian organizations, which are often persecuted even though they have played a supersized role in Nepal's development.

Most of them are accused of proselytization despite having society's best interests at heart when it comes to development. Meanwhile, local media are increasingly targeting Christian NGOs with false reports and “fake news.”

It is important to make religious leaders aware of the role that faith-based organizations are playing in terms of social development.

Normally, interfaith dialogue includes discussions of harmony and peace, but we need to foster intercultural dialogue to develop a common understanding, address social issues and engage in the development process.

Faith actors need to be taught about social issues, the law and international practices if we are to see improved results.

Prakash Khadka is a peace and human rights activist as well as the Nepal representative of Pax Romana, the international Catholic movement for intellectual and cultural affairs.

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