Nepal: Women deprived of political & economic clout subsist in climate of horrific male violence
2008; 371: pages 547-548
Nepalese women under the shadow of domestic violenceSanjaya Dhakal
Although Nepal's decade-long conflict has ended, every year, tens of thousands of women in the country still experience violence. In about 80% of cases, the perpetrator is not a stranger to the woman but a member of her own family. Sanjaya Dhakal reports from Kathmandu.
Despite rising political awareness, most women in Nepal are still subject to deeply entrenched discrimination, resulting in a scary situation where violence against them is commonplace.
Domestic violence against women, including beatings by husbands. dowry-related murders, and physical and psychological harassment by families is rampant in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world. “Of the total incidence of violence against women, domestic violence constitutes over 80%”, said Dhana Kumari Sunar, a member of the National Women's Commission (NWC). “Among the various causes of domestic violence, dowry-related hostilities, second marriage by husbands, assaults on women accused of being witches, and disputes involving properties top the list”, she added.
The central cell for women and children at Nepal's police headquarters has recorded 1100 cases of domestic violence against women in the past year. Since these reports consist of only the formal complaints lodged by women, officials concede that they are only the tip of the iceberg. As these violent episodes occur within family settings, often the women end up with no-one and nowhere to turn to in a society that is still overtly patriarchal.
The NWCan umbrella national body formed to protect the rights of womenis in the process of compiling nationwide data on the numbers and nature of violence against women. “But we can safely say that tens of thousands of women suffer from domestic violence every year in the country”, Sunar said.
The women of Nepal who had fought alongside Nepalese men to restore democracy in their country 2 years ago, were roundly disappointed when the parliament they helped to restore also failed to take up their cause.
A bill to combat domestic violence against women, which has been lingering in Nepal's parliament for the past 13 years, could not be passed even in this year's parliamentary session, which ended last month.
The bill was an important piece of legislation that could have provided crucial support for Nepalese women. In the absence of such a law, the perpetrators of domestic violence often get off scot-free or only get a slap on the wristsince in many cases the traditional patriarchy operates in a manner where husbands and senior family members are thought to possess the right to control women of the house.
Take the case of Hasun Idrisia woman from a city in western Nepal called Nepalgunj who was long harassed by her husband and in-laws for not bringing a big enough marriage dowry. 2 months ago, they poured kerosene on her body, set a fire nearby, and locked her up in a toilet. Luckily, her neighbours, who heard her shouts for help, managed to rush her to the hospital and she survived.
Manauti Saru was not so lucky. The 23-year-old woman from Nawalparasi district in south western Nepal was killed by her husband 2 weeks ago. A case has been registered against her husbandSher Bahadur Saru, who is a constable at a local police station, and family members, who have been accused of hacking her to death amidst a domestic scuffle.
Almost every day, newspapers in the country report cases of domestic violence against women. The extent of this problem is shown by a report in the last week of January, in which four women were killed by their husbands or family members in the space of 1 week in Rupandehi and Nawalparasitwo districts in south-western Nepal. Three of the women were killed after dowry-related disputes, and the fourth was killed by her husband after a bitter domestic brawl. Ironically, these two districts had earlier been declared by local civil society organisations to be zones free of violence against women.
“Currently, even grave violence against women, such as sexual violence, marital rape, mental and physical torture are dealt with under the public offence act. The non-passage of the bill to control domestic violence, therefore, is very unfortunate”, said Sunar.
Women's rights activists have also complained about the tendency of law enforcement agencies to try to settle disputes without pressing charges against the perpetrators. “Often, police and local people try to settle the domestic dispute by pressing the women into accepting their ‘fate’ as the society is still dominated by Hindu patriarchy with its own set of strict codesmany of which are in conflict with basic rights for women”, said activist and former NWC chairperson Bandana Rana.
Women experienced conflict-related trauma in the decade-long conflict in Nepal. Between 1996 and 2006, when Nepal was in the throes of a violent insurgency, about 15 000 people lost their livesmany of them women. Many more people were injured and displaced. Thousands of women were subjected to torture, assault, and rape by both sides of the warring factions. Around 300 000 peoplemostly women and childrenwere displaced from their native places due to conflict.
However, in recent times, conflict-related traumas such as rape and forced displacements have tapered off, but domestic violence continues to grow. “We have not seen the incidence of violence against women drop at all. Although the level of awareness among women regarding their rights has increased, sadly the situation has not improved so far as violence against them is concerned”, said Rana, who is also the vice president of Saathian organisation that runs a shelter home for abused women in Kathmandu.
Sita Gurung (name changed), from Bhojpur district in eastern Nepal, found shelter at Saathi. “My husband used to beat me every day. Unable to bear the beatings even at minor causes, I ran away from my house”, said Gurung.
Amidst this backdrop, Nepal's women's rights movement has been gaining strength. Consequently, the government has amended old laws that discriminated against women. The parliament has already declared that women should be guaranteed at least 33% representation in all areas of the state. But this policy has not helped to change the condition on the ground.
The social neglect experienced by women is shown by poor health indicators. The latest Demographic Health Survey shows that the maternal mortality rate per 100 000 deliveries is 281. 81% of births still take place in the home.
Half a million children are out of school and more than 60% of them are girls. The overall literacy for women is 42·5%, compared with 65·1% for men, according to recently released government statistics.
Women have received the short end of the stick on the economic front as well. A report commissioned by the NWC revealed startling discrimination against women in terms of ownership of assets and properties. The report, which assessed the situation in 68 of 75 districts in Nepal, exposed the skewed nature of property distribution. It revealed that only 0·78% of houses were actually (legally) owned by women (about three women in 500 had houses in their names). Only 5·25% of women had land-ownership certificates in their name. Likewise, only 5·45% of women owned livestock.
About 17% of women had some kind of assets in their name such as ornaments, jewellery, property, or land. Only 16% of women had a regular income. And, only 8% of the civil-service and private-sector workforce is made up of women. “Because the women of Nepal suffer from various kinds of discrimination, they have landed in such a pathetic socioeconomic condition”, said Babita Basnet, a prominent women's rights activist in Nepal.
Over the past two decades, Nepal has gone through a series of political upheavals. In 1990, a street movement restored democracy in the country. In 1996, a violent insurgency was launched by Maoists but ended in 2006 after a peace pact. In all these movements, women took part prominently. But they were still unable to secure just participation in other areas of society and improve their socioeconomic status. Even now, women occupy less than 5% of leadership positions in the political parties.
Until such social factors are addressed and improve, the health and wellbeing of women in Nepal will continue to pay the price.