The PLA soldier, Shanti Kala Kumal, 19, attached to the Fourth Division headquartered in Hattikhor, Nawalparasari district, central Nepal, was on security duty at the 14th PLA Day parade.
Witnessed by the PLA’s top brass and hundreds of civilians, the military ceremony was for her an opportunity to snatch a few moments with her mother and two-year-old daughter, who had travelled from their village in Chitwan, some 45 kms away, to see her.
"My job is my first priority but being a mother sometimes distracts me," Kumal says almost guiltily. But quickly regaining her composure, she adds, "I have not given anyone a single chance to complain about me!"
The number of new mothers in the PLA has shot up dramatically since the end of the civil war in 2006, when the guerrilla army returned to new Maoist cantonments, and many marriages were solemnised.
Of the 700 women in Hattikhor alone, 198 are new mothers and 40 others pregnant. There are some 2,000 new mothers among the 23,610 combatants in seven main and 21 sub-Maoist cantonments in Nepal.
"Most (female) PLA personnel were between 18 and 20 when they entered the cantonments," says Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. "Now they have reached the prime age and most of them have given birth."
Facilities in the cantonments, including housing and health, are poor because of an acute shortage of funds. "We have not been able to provide special care for new mothers and babies," Bhattarai admits.
Even post-natal allowance, for instance, for those who choose to stay outside the cantonment, is a mere 26 dollars for up to six months. (The exchange rate is one U.S. dollar to 85 rupees.)
Nepal’s 2007 interim constitution promises every woman the right to reproductive health and other reproductive rights. In addition, no woman shall be discriminated against in any way on the basis of gender.
The PLA has introduced paternity leave for its soldiers. "We know that new mothers need utmost care," Chandra Dev Khanal ‘Baldev’, deputy PLA commander told IPS. "A month’s leave for the father is a revolutionary concept in Nepal."
Since January 2009, government-run hospitals and health centres are providing free delivery services. The policy change was introduced with the aim of bringing down Nepal’s alarming maternal mortality rate of 281 per 100,000 live births.
Women soldiers are permitted three to six months maternity leave to nurse infants. In addition, they are "exempt from any kind of physical work, including exercise," says Bina Lama, platoon commander of the Third Division who swears the PLA takes care of new mothers and their children.
The truth may be that most women soldiers, indoctrinated to hide pain and behave like they are made of iron, are not claiming their rights, says a government doctor who spoke to IPS after a visit to Hattikhor. He insisted on anonymity.
He says most nursing mothers in cantonments are not provided the special post-partum diets that are essential for their recovery. Instead, they are fed the same spicy food that is cooked for everyone. "They will suffer in the long run," the doctor confides.
During the 10-years of armed conflict in Nepal, 40 percent of PLA personnel were women. Since the November 2006 peace deal, many female soldiers have quit voluntarily, and their numbers have gone down by more than half.
"I requested my commander not to give special treatment to 25 pregnant women as we overheard some male commanders complaining that they were being forced to eat ‘jwano’," says 23-year-old Muga Limbu, a PLA soldier in Shaktikhor Maoist Division. Jwano is a medicinal herb with a pungent smell that is added in food given to pregnant women as it is believed to cure flu and build up resistance.
Dr. Yasovardhan Pradhan, spokesperson in the Ministry of Health and Population in Kathmandu, told IPS that the government has tied up with the U.N. population agency, UNFPA, and Nepal Society of Obstetricians, to send doctors to the Maoists cantonments.
The government is finalising a plan to have a doctor and nurse visit a cantonment once a week for pre- and post-natal check-ups.
"This is a positive sign," says Dr. Sudha Sharma, a gynecologist at the Maternity Hospital in Kathmandu and secretary in the Ministry of Health. "PLA soldiers too have the right to reproductive health."
Nepal’s Maoist cantonments were created as temporary shelters made of canvas and tin for the former guerrillas. These are not places to bring up children in, the acting coordinator of the central cantonment management office, Dinesh Hari Adhikari, asserts.
Hence, even PLA rules prohibit soldiers from keeping children older than three in the cantonment. Most infants, like Kumal’s, are left with their grandparents - a common practice in Nepal and other developing countries where there is a tradition of large-scale migration of adults in search of jobs. (END/2009)