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Navigating Identities in Nepal

Peace Corps’ Intercultural Competence, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (ICDEIA) approach seeks to reflect and support the diversity of the United States through its staff and Volunteers, who represent a broad collection of social identities, including race, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, marital status, and socioeconomic status, among others.

How might a Volunteer’s social identities impact their service?

The information below provides additional context about how different social identity groups may experience service and what types of ICDEIA-related support you can expect from the Peace Corps.

Once Volunteers arrive at their sites, diversity and inclusion principles remain the same, but take on a different shape, in which your host community may share a common culture and you (the Volunteer) are the outsider. You may be in the minority, if not the sole American, in your community. You will notice variety of perspectives on ethnicity, age, and variations in the depth of conversations on this topic, and degree of support you may receive, or/and the need for you to adjust. During pre-service training, different sessions will be held to discuss diversity and inclusion and how you can transcend differences, find common ground, and serve as an ally for your peers.

Accessibility and disability considerations

As a Volunteer with disabilities in Nepal, you may face a special set of challenges. In Nepal, as in other parts of the world, some people hold prejudicial attitudes about individuals with disabilities and may not include them in all activities or make assumptions on capability. Also, there is little infrastructure to accommodate individuals with physical impairments in Nepal.

However, staff are committed to exploring creative and innovative ways to support reasonable accommodations for Volunteer success. This includes, and is not limited to, working with Volunteers to support them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

Gender role considerations

Historically, Nepal has predominantly been a patriarchal society where women are generally subordinate to men, and this occurs within almost all the ethnic groups.

  • Work: In Nepali culture, men have often been raised to take care of the family economically, so they take charge of the public sphere. Women have always had the role of taking care of household chores, and this can lead households to expect Volunteers presenting as women to help in household chores, whereas Volunteers presenting as men offering to do household chores will be asked not to do so, and might be shamed by the men in the house for doing so. Volunteers will have to remain conscious of gender roles and relationship dynamics when working with people of a different gender than their own.
  • Mobility: Women Volunteers may feel that they have less freedom compared to men Volunteers. Community members in Nepal, especially host family members, tend to be protective and are concerned regarding potential threats in the area and this can leave women and Volunteers presenting as women feeling restricted in their movements.
  • Culture: Due to social and cultural dynamics, staff in public offices may treat men with more respect than women, and people might talk and seek advice more from men Volunteers. As men are dominant figures in Nepali culture, some women may be shy to speak with men Volunteers, especially in conversations about social, health, and nutritional issues affecting women.
  • Cultural practices: Depending on the location, religion, and the caste of the Nepali family, menstruation rules may be very strict and rigid for women and Volunteers presenting as women. Some families do not allow menstruating women to enter in the kitchen and worship room at least for five days.

During pre-service training, you will receive an introduction to gender awareness in-country, and will take time to examine your own thinking about gender roles and how they have impacted you. You’ll then learn to analyze development projects using a gender lens to better understand gender roles in your host country and how these gender roles can benefit or limit what you may or may not do—both from a personal standpoint and in relation to work and relationships in-country.

LGBTQI+ considerations

In Nepal you will also be hearing and or reading a term SOGIESC (sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics) widely being used in public documents and portals by the LGBTQI+ communities and allies.

Nepal has a recently adopted same sex marriage law, however only a few couples so far have registered their unions.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers who are used to being open about their sexual orientation should know that same-sex relationships are not talked about or openly recognized in rural Nepali culture. Nepal has strong traditional values and religious customs, but that does not mean there are no gay, lesbian, or bisexual Nepalis.

Peace Corps staff are trained on ICDEIA including (LGBTQI+ community), so please feel free to reach out for further information and support as needed. Across countries, Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers to provide them with locally informed perspectives. Some LGBTQI+ Volunteers have chosen to come out to community members, with a result of positive and negative reactions, while some have come out only to selected Peace Corps staff and Volunteers. Many have chosen to be discreet about their orientation and/or gender identity within their host community.

LGBTQI+ support groups may be available in-country, providing a network to support the needs of the Peace Corps LGBTQI+ community. For more information around the social and legal context of LGBTQI+ community in Nepal and the information around support networks available, please go through Blue Diamond Society Nepal and Maya ko Pahichan Nepal.

Racial and ethnic diversity considerations

Most Volunteers, regardless of their appearance, will receive unwanted attention that is often related to well-intended curiosity within the Nepali context. Some commonly asked questions include: Are you married? What does your father do? Occasionally, female Volunteers also might receive catcalls from men. It is normal for Nepali people to talk about a Volunteer’s physical attributes. Nepali people can also use different derogatory terms, and some host family members specifically mention not to send Volunteers of color. Asian Americans often face discrimination in the form of disbelief that they are American. Community members may have little knowledge of the U.S. and its diversity. Therefore, they may have a hard time understanding how you can physically look like an Asian and still be an American. It is widely believed that all Americans are rich. Volunteers are often asked how much money they make, if they can sponsor a visa and arrange someone’s stay in the U.S.

Asian American and Pacific Islander Volunteers: Volunteers of Asian descent may not be viewed as “real” Americans in Nepal. It is common for all people of Asian descent to be referred to as “Chinese.” Microaggressions around martial arts abilities or language/accent may be common. Some Asian American and Pacific Islander Volunteers seemed to have integrated and blended in well with the community as the community would not see much difference in terms of looks presumed as Nepali.

Black/African American Volunteers: Though ethnic Nepali communities comprise dark brown complexions, there is favoritism of lighter complexions. As such there could be some prejudice for the Volunteers with darker skin tones. Volunteers with African ancestry might not be considered as Americans and rather be referred as Africans. Nepalis openly refer to darker African Americans who have African features as “habsis” (a word for African people). Nepal is impacted by regional and international stereotypes perpetuated by Western and Indian media. So, though there is no historical context for hatred, some communities could be hesitant to accept a Black/African American Volunteer. Even so, many African American Volunteers have successful and positive experiences in Nepal. Service in Nepal offers a unique opportunity for you to expand local perspectives on the diversity of Black American culture, history, and identity.

Native American, Latino/Hispanic American & Mixed-Race Volunteers: Many Nepali communities find physical appearance of Hispanic and multi-racial Volunteers as similar to their own. Some are convinced that Native Americans and Hispanic Americans originate from everywhere but the United States, including the Middle East and Latin/Central America. Due to your hair color and facial features, you might not be considered American and the inquiry into your country of origin may be ongoing. Service in Nepal offers a unique opportunity for you to expand local perspectives on American diversity, including our history of immigration, the complexity of racial identity.

White & European American Volunteers: Historically, White Americans and Europeans were the initial groups to visit Nepal in large quantities and they are still the predominant tourists and expat community members. As a result, there is an automatic assumption of U.S. citizenship, while many of your fellow Volunteers of color may experience the contrary. At the same time, White Volunteers may stand out more and receive different types of unwanted attention. There could also be some misconception among people that White people will bring money to a community and or be more sexually promiscuous. Being an ally to fellow Volunteers (and a cultural ambassador to local communities) will be important as a White & European American, as the responsibility to explain America’s diversity may be a regular experience.

Age considerations

Older Volunteers are more likely to find their age as an asset in country and will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers. Although it might be a double-edge sword, they are often assumed as an “expert” in his or her field. They are given more respect and care by the community; however, Volunteers must take precautions to avoid too much attention as part of their care. Older Volunteers may also be asked personal questions like “Don’t you have children to look after you?” or “Why do you want to work at this age?”

In addition, pre-service training can be particularly stressful for older trainees, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may or may not lend themselves to the techniques used. They might struggle to establish similar circles of friends as they may be the only older person in a group of Volunteers and initially may not feel part of the group. Some 50+ Volunteers may find it difficult to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role after having worked for many years in a very structured and demanding job. As living and environmental conditions in Nepal are basic, and medical services are not readily available in villages, they may need to be prepared to take special health precautions to ensure a healthy completion of service.

The legal retirement age in Nepal is 55, though this may be deferred until a person is 60, which is the mandatory retirement age. Volunteers over 60 years old may sense resentment from community members who were forced to retire at that age.

Religious considerations

While Nepal is a secular country and you has the freedom to practice your own religion, Volunteers may sometimes face challenges to practice their religion while remaining careful not to be perceived as proselytizing. Close to 81 percent of the population in Nepal practices Hinduism. The remaining 19 percent are Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, or another faith. Religion forms the core of traditional Nepali life and art. Nepalis are very willing to share their religion with Volunteers, from the morning tika to visiting a sacred temple. Nepalis will generally assume you are Christian and that you eat beef (which Hindus do not eat because cows are considered sacred). If you are of another religion or are an atheist, it may be difficult for them to get past this stereotype. Another possible issue may be the inability to celebrate your own holidays with friends and family around you. There are churches, mosques, and monasteries in Nepal that Volunteers may attend, but they may not be easily accessible. Volunteers must be creative in how they practice their religion.

Considerations for Volunteer couples

Non-married couples are often faced with pressure from community members to conform with traditional relationships in-country. In rural settings of Nepal, it is believed that you must be married to live together. So, there should be a plan to navigate those challenges if you are partnered but not a married couple. Men in Nepal are viewed as the dominant gender and as such the man will usually be the person that all questions are directed towards. Also, couples without children may also be questioned heavily about why they do not have children, etc. This is another question that is best to discuss prior and decide as a couple how you will respond to questions like this.

Types of ICDEIA support available in country

Peace Corps Nepal has a staff-led ICDEIA Task Force that works to intentionally foster a more inclusive and equitable organizational culture within Peace Corps. The taskforce collaborates with and seeks input from Volunteers on various ICDEIA efforts from working to make training and programming more effective and appropriate to co-creating ideas to strengthen inclusion and belonging for Volunteers, staff, and host country partners.

Staff periodically meet with host country human rights groups and advocates to better understand the ICDEIA social and legal context in country and invite representatives from local groups to meet with staff, trainees, and Volunteers during certain training and programming events.

The ICDEIA task force also collaborates with the embassy-based DEIA council to identify potential support avenues and programs that can be helpful for Volunteers.