Female Pilots Challenge Aviation, Social Norms in Nepal

2014-04-05

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“The sound of the Indian jet plane taking off enveloped me, and I felt the rattling vibrations creep up to my feet,” says Anusha Udas, 22. “As I watched the jet plane ascend in the clear, blue sky with a kind of speed that I had never witnessed before, I knew I was destined to fly. My heart started beating faster, and that for me was the sign – a dream I had to follow.”

Udas was just 15 when she realized she wanted to be a pilot. She was studying in a boarding school in West Bengal, India, when she first saw that jet fly.
 
Udas is now a co-pilot at Fishtail Air, a local company. But she says she didn’t realize that achieving this dream would require breaking many social barriers and challenging Nepal’s patriarchal social structure.
 
Udas’ parents wanted her to be a doctor, which she says is a common dream among Nepali parents for their children. They pressured her to enroll in a premedical course before starting an undergraduate program.
 
Obediently, she did as she was told. But within a week, she says she knew that she did not belong there.
 
“I knew I would do well as a medical student, but that is not what I wanted,” she says.
 
She asserted herself and persuaded her father to enroll her in a pilot training school in South Africa. Finally, she was able to pursue her dream.
 
Men have long dominated the aviation industry in Nepal. Observers attribute this to gender roles embedded into Nepali social structure in which parents prioritize their sons’ educations because they depend on them to take care of them in their old age. The high cost of attending flight school and competition to attain a job make becoming a pilot an even loftier goal. But a growing number of women say they are determined to fly, and men in the industry acknowledge that women are just as capable.
 
Aviation in Nepal started in the 1950s and was a domain only for men, says Y.K. Bhattarai, a senior captain for Nepal Airlines and president of the Nepal Airlines Pilots Association. While the profession is no longer reserved for men, the numbers still reflect a gender disparity.
 
Women hold just four of the 205 airport transport pilot licenses that have been issued in Nepal, says Tri Ratna Manandhar, director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, the regulatory body under the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation. Out of the 214 commercial pilot licenses issued by the authority, just 24 belong to female pilots.
 
Bhattarai says that Prabha Vaidya was Nepal’s first female air traffic controller. He says she also tried to become the nation’s first female pilot but was denied the opportunity because of her sex.
 
In 1979, a Canadian government agency provided scholarships for 24 Nepali candidates to receive pilot training in Canada. Nepali pilots still must seek training abroad because of the lack of flight schools in Nepal. Vaidya was the lone woman who applied for this scholarship. All 24 candidates selected for the scholarship were men.
 
“‘We did want Vaidya, but as the only woman in the team, there would have been problems with logistics,’” Bhattarai says the scholarship program coordinator told him informally. "‘Hence, it was not feasible to have her on the team.’"
 
Vaidya says she would have been just as capable as the male candidates.
 
“I don’t believe that a woman is inferior to a man,” she says. “If a man can do something, so can a woman.”
 
Vaidya never went to flight school. Now retired, she serves as an aviation expert for Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation.
 
 
Read more: http://www.globalpressinstitute.org/global-news/asia/nepal/female-pilots-challenge-aviation-social-norms-nepal#ixzz1qBMttRuD