Nepal's female soldiers break taboos amid COVID-19

Outside of a cremation house in Nepal's capital city, Kathmandu, wailing relatives throw marigolds and vermillion powder over an iron fence onto a white shroud covering the body of a 58-year-old man.

Nepal's army is responsible for managing the bodies of coronavirus victims across the nation and for the first time, female soldiers are also being deployed to help.

It's a position once unimaginable in the conservative, Hindu-majority country, where women touching a dead body is still a cultural taboo.

But rights for women in the nation of 30 million have improved since it emerged from a decade-long civil war in 2006 and abolished its centuries-old feudal monarchy two years later.

On their first day on the job last month, four female soldiers moved six bodies from a hospital to a crematorium.

Rachana, a 25-year-old corporal, was one of those women, "this is an opportunity that we got from the Nepal army as we can't do this type of work outside. It was a challenge for us and we were thinking whether we would be able to do it or not. We turned this challenge into an opportunity and did it successfully."

The nation's army spokesman said the 95,000-strong force was putting female soldiers in new roles, as part of a programme to empower them.

Since the pandemic first struck Nepal in January, over 200,000 have been infected and 1,500 killed, according to official data.

Health workers say the pandemic will only worsen as winter sets in and limited health infrastructure, including critical care beds, is stretched.