Shreya, now 19 and a resident of Sanepa, was only nine when, at a family gathering, her teenage cousin decided to sleep next to her and take advantage of her. Mina, now 22 and a Bagdol resident, was 12 when she stopped going to the neighborhood shop after the shopkeeper molested her.
I was seven when it happened to me. The house helper my family hired and trusted convinced me to go to the guest bedroom with him to please himself. I didn’t know that it was wrong. I thought every girl had to go through this, that at least all of my friends did.
As the UN marks 16 days of activism against gender-based violence from 25 November to 10 December 2021 under the global theme “Orange the World: End Violence against women now!”, I ask myself, what did we know?
There is a thin line between what one learns and what he or she understands from it. Research shows that worldwide one in three women have been sexually violated at least once in their lives. But only one in ten come forth about it.
But have you ever thought about how close these abused women are to you? Maybe it’s the girl who sat next to you in class, the woman you say ‘hi!’ to every morning on your way out, or the person who you share lunch with during your lunch break at work.
One day, news of a brutal rape makes it to the headlines of every newspaper, most Instagram stories share the news and it trends on Twitter, and then the issue disappers—until the next reported case.
“The state isn’t paying enough attention to sexual violence in Nepal,” says Bishnu Bashyal, a lawyer at the Supreme Court and a partner at Supravat Kanuni Sewa Sadan. “With the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of such cases has only increased.”
Sudima, another resident of Kathmandu who is now 28, used to work late shifts at a hotel when one night a higher-level employee forced her into engaging with him sexually; she was 21, and he was 43. She decided to leave work and not tell anyone until seven years later. Arati, now 18, was 14 when a teacher in her school ‘mistakenly’ lifted her skirt’ and then blamed it on his ‘friendly nature’.
Many still haven’t understood the meaning of ‘my body, my right’. For centuries, men have controlled the female body.
When I ask myself why it happened, the saddest part is that it did, for a reason I’ll never know. Why did no one help me? Because I never told anyone. Why didn’t I tell anyone? Because I didn’t know how to. Because I didn’t know if I should. Because, for 10 years after it happened, I didn’t know that things shouldn’t have happened that way. I am also among that one in three women.
Times are changing and more people are sharing their stories. But societal perception and victim-blaming haven’t changed. The state is not being held accountable for this, shares Bashyal, who has worked on cases of gender-based sexual violence for over 28 years.
“Am I a victim?” I used to think every time I watched my classmates read the newspaper, pointing right at ‘10-year-old girl raped in the fields of Sindhupalchowk’ on the front page. Am I a victim too? And if so, why me? Why her?
There is no security, no environment to speak out because the consequences are almost as worse. How can we expect more people to share their stories when what comes after still doesn’t provide them safety?
It took me 10 years to share my story with a close friend; 10 years after replaying the image in my head every time I closed my eyes, remembering that smell. It finally felt comfortable to share my experience as she shared her story with me too. She had a story too. That’s when I thought, maybe this does happen to a lot of people. That’s when I realized that it shouldn’t.
Sexual violence is not just another topic of conversation. It is a reality, a trauma that thousands and thousands of women and men live with and accept just to avoid humiliation and negative attention.
There are now laws and policies to ‘prevent and protect’, but they haven't changed the social mindset. There is much that needs to be addressed. What can the law do if people’s mindset is warped, and the mainstream society is structured to indirectly take their side? Before blaming the victim, think about the hundreds of times she has blamed herself and found no reason why it’s her fault.
Not just 16, there should be a 365-day movement to speak out about why it is wrong and why it needs to be stopped. Every voice does its bit to change that mindset. How many more until no more? That’s up to us.
(Some names have been changed to protect the informants’ privacy)