Is Land to Male as Shelter is to Female? Gendering the Politics of Land and Shelter in Kathmandu’s Sukumbasi Settlements

Sujit Shrestha

Sukumbasi groups in Nepal identify themselves as people without formal titles for the lands on which they have built their houses. Indeed, the Nepali word ‘sukumbasi’ commonly describes conditions of destitution and landlessness. Since the 1950s, sukumbasi groups have organized themselves politically by emphasizing demands for land titles. Such demands by urban sukumbasi groups have posed tremendous challenges for constellations of governmental agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and international development agencies that have, in turn, sought to re-assemble sukumbasi groups as technical developmental categories. Using shelter rights frameworks that variously translate sukumbasi as ‘slums’, ‘informal settlements’, and ‘urban poor’, such agencies have sought to foreclose possibilities of land ownership for urban sukumbasi groups. Sukumbasi groups, on the other hand, have been resisting such efforts to undermine their political demands for land.

More recently, however, women-led sukumbasi groups in Kathmandu have partnered with national women’s rights networks and international development agencies and moved away from earlier emphases on land titles to favor shelter rights frameworks. Adopting shelter rights frameworks, women-led sukumbasi groups have drawn attention to and challenged male-dominated sukumbasi politics centered on land. While these recent shifts in alliances and discursive frameworks have enabled sukumbasi women to participate in otherwise male-dominated political arenas, they have also greatly troubled efforts by earlier sukumbasi organizations to foment emancipatory sukumbasi agendas around unified demands for land titles. In this paper, I will draw on ethnographic materials collected between 2012-2016 to analyze the implications of these emergent gendered politics on possible urban futures for sukumbasi groups.

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