A 13-year-old girl is raped. The policeman who is filing the complaint tells her she has a reputation for being sexually active. A gang-rape victim is questioned if she enjoyed ‘having sex’ with any of her rapists. At a school in Chitwan, the administration refuses to open a box of complaints by students after a girl is sexually abused by one of their teachers. They are told not to spread rumors. In Morang, an angry mob kills a woman police constable. She is on her way to arrest a teacher named Manoj Poudel who is involved in three incidents of sexual abuse.
Our society has always granted immunity to men. When a woman suffers abuse, she is told to let it go, not to create a fuss, or is blamed for what she had to go through—she must have done something to get unwarranted attention; dressed inappropriately perhaps or gone out alone at night? This promotes violence and limits women’s access to justice, says Lily Thapa, women’s rights activist and member of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Worse, women choose to suffer in silence rather than go through the ordeal of speaking up and being stigmatized.
“The country’s institutions are run on patriarchal ideologies and women, as a result, are oppressed. Our socialization process also promotes gender discrimination, which ultimately manifests in mental, physical or emotional abuse,” she says. Thapa adds that gender stereotypes like ‘the father is the head of the household’, and ‘the mother cooks food at home’ litter our school curriculum. The role of the man as the strong provider and the woman as the meek caretaker is imprinted on children’s minds early on. Gender dynamics shape how we think and behave and it’s difficult to unlearn this later on in life and accept that men and women are equal.
Manju Khatiwada, undersecretary at NHRC, says our system is designed in men’s favor. From having different sets of rules for sons and daughters to political protection for criminals, men enjoy many liberties. The society, Khatiwada says, is highly tolerant of men’s mistakes while making no allowances whatsoever for women’s occasional slip-ups. If a man, say, has an affair, people character-assassinate the woman he is seeing.
A friend recently confided in me that a reputed corporate house she works at in Lalitpur fired a woman when she was caught having an affair with a married man. The man still works at the same office. His wife publicly attacked the woman when she found out about the affair, calling her all sorts of names while saying nothing to her husband. She claimed the woman had ‘honey-trapped’ her husband. Similarly, multiple women have accused a renowned cardiologist in Kathmandu of sexual harassment but no action has ever been taken against him. Rather, the hospital he works at covers up the incidents, sometimes even making his subordinates take the blame.
“We have all these ideas about how women should speak, dress, and behave but none for men. Instead, all kinds of excuses are made for men’s bad behavior,” says Khatiwada. The society’s patriarchal values have given men the confidence that they can get away with disrespecting women and violating their rights. According to a report by the United Nations Population Fund, 48 percent of Nepali women have faced some form of violence at some point in their lives; 15 percent of these women have faced sexual violence. The actual proportion is believed to be higher as the stigma of being a victim and the ensuing social ostracization keep many women from reporting violence.
Kamal Phuyal, sociologist, says most women are socialized to think of abuse and violence as their fate. He adds that women have inherited and internalized the culture of silence from their mothers and grandmothers. Many still think abuse is a domestic issue and that talking about it will bring shame to the family. Our family, education, society, and legal system support a culture of women’s dominance. Children grow up seeing gender imbalance at home. Schools don’t focus on moral education. Our society controls women in the name of religion and tradition. The legal system, with its many loopholes and red tape, acts late, if at all.
Phuyal says people are generally governed by various codes of conduct—be it social, religious, or legal. But, in our society, he laments, people make their own arbitrary rules. There’s a lack of conscience and responsibility. In rural areas, people still fear any misconduct on their part will hurt their reputation or negatively impact their families. This fear of societal scorn is lacking in urban areas. That coupled with a weak implementation of laws instigates violence. “Violence escalates when people believe they can get away with anything,” says Phuyal.
Mistreatment of women usually begins at home, though it might not be blatantly obvious at times. Women have little or no say in family matters. The male members of the family keep tabs on their whereabouts and spendings. They are second-class citizens in their own homes. The emotional and mental abuse goes unnoticed and many women suffer from depression and other mental health issues, says Rumi Rajbhandari, founder of Astitwa, an organization that works for the rehabilitation of burn violence survivors. Sometimes, this escalates to physical violence.
“Our male-dominated society imposes strict gender norms that dictate how we behave and interact and that puts women at a disadvantage,” says Rajbhandari. Men, she adds, often have an inflated sense of self and when things don’t go their way, their egos get hurt. Burn violence and rapes are usually the result of men not being able to take a ‘no’ for an answer, she says.
Raunaq Singh Adhikari, advocate, says there are many laws to protect women and ensure their rights but they are largely limited to paper. Our justice system needs a fast-track mechanism for cases of violence. The Supreme Court, in 2014, called for it among other changes but it has yet to be implemented. “It’s high time we addressed the legal issues that victimize women,” he says.
Lochana Sharma, counseling psychologist, on the other hand, says women need moral support in addition to legal help. In most cases, women fear backlash from their families, relatives, and neighbors and hesitate to share their stories. “Women need to be supported at home for them to be able to take a stand when needed. But sadly, our patriarchal mindset pulls them down. They are told to be silent and to compromise, often at the cost of their mental wellbeing,” says Sharma.
For women to live a dignified life, Undersecretary Khatiwada adds, what we need is a zero-tolerance policy for violence and a change in our socialization process. Activist Thapa agrees. She says the change must start from our homes. We must groom our children to respect others despite gender, class, religion and other manmade differences. Sociologist Phuyal says our education system needs to be reformed to include gender studies in the school curriculum. That’s the only sustainable solution to curb gender disparity and violence, he says.