Recent research in Nepal by Emory University and SAHAJ found that 66 percent of young women and girls are afraid of men in their families, especially fathers and husbands. While 45 percent felt afraid sometimes, 11 percent felt scared often.
I am a father of two daughters—one of them is two and the other seven. I know that my older daughter is a little afraid of me. “Did you finish your homework? Why don’t you practice your music? Please put your stuff away. Can you not do that please? Did you finish reading the book?”: These are questions that have to be asked. Once in a while, say about two or three times every year, timeout sessions have to be doled out. I worry about how I can be a kinder, better father.
I was 16 when I started working with children and other young people. I have been a tutor, volunteer, teacher, counselor, a children’s program lead, administrator, and a planner who has influenced, to a degree, young people four to 20 years old. Over three decades, I have had direct say in the activities of more than a thousand young people.
Yet it made the hairs on my back stand when I read in the SAHAJ study report that girls share, “A higher burden of labor, family conflict, and decreased financial security. The return of absent family members and alcohol abuse by adults were associated with several categories of fear and a reported decrease in feeling safe in the home.” It's unimaginable to me that our daughters do not feel safe at home.
The young people I worked with, some were very poor or abandoned, unable to afford quality education and care. Some came from families of multi-millionaires and had several servants assigned to their wellbeing, including security guards. Whether the families came from the high mountains or the Tarai plains, whether they suffered poverty or were rich, they faced the same question: how to best bring up their child?
Even then there were conflicts within families, among parents and grandparents, children and adults. In my family, father and mother tried to treat me and my sister as equals, yet there was a struggle with the extended family. There was no denying that Nepali traditional families continue to give preferential treatment to their sons. However, much has changed for a new generation of daughters. My friends remain immensely happy with one daughter or two, giving them the same love as they would a son. Very blessed with two wonderful daughters, I tell my friends sometimes, “We should start a club for those of us who have daughters only, there are so many of us!”
Bringing them up, I have seen families that are firm with their children while teaching them empathy and giving them care. Full freedom without consequences turned most children into a bother for the people who came in contact with them and for the families themselves. The most difficult situations came about when children were given full freedom and then meted out stern punishment when things became difficult.
My generation was afraid of fathers, teachers, police, authority in general and shameful of family members who were “different.” Most of us faced corporal punishments. A significant number of us, I believe, have stunted empathy, reject our larger families, stay away and remain uncommunicative, and have only made peace with ourselves and our dear ones after many years—or not at all.
The opposite is true of how people treat their offspring now, and so it was a concerning throwback to read of daughters who are scared of family (especially fathers), with 86 percent of them never sharing their fears with anyone. A VSO survey documents that 21 percent of respondents perceived an increase in gender-based violence in their community and less access to safety nets since the start of the Covid lockdown.
The ideal families that I have worked with deeply respected their young people and their opinions. Daughters in these homes are unafraid to share their ideas and opinions and elders take their ideas on board in everyday decision-making. Though rebellious, they stay within boundaries. They care about their grandparents, uncles and aunts; and the old as they face old age, disease, and death. They have great compassion for their parents and siblings and are willing to support everyone the best they can. They are happy to visit cousins and the extended family knowing that they belong.
But in this new world where parents want to be understanding of their children, where corporal punishment is not an option, it was easy to be draconian using psychological, verbal, and, later, financial means to create control. When there was lack of togetherness, it resulted in young people following a different philosophy and understanding of life: estrangement and disagreement were addressed ultimately with tolerance, acceptance, and a bringing together.
There is really no one way of parenting, educating, and bringing up young people. Governments, media, societies, neighbors and family members can point to how things “should be” and that in itself is flawed considering that each geography, culture, language, community, family, and individual is different. “I really do not want to be friends with my kids…. It is my job to make sure that my kids are taught what is right and what is wrong. It is my job is to teach my children how to become great human beings. I am okay with my kids thinking I am not their best friend. I am okay with my kids being upset that they’re disciplined.”
As a father, though, I would like to be approachable even though I would want my daughters to accept responsibility and be accountable. I would like them to feel that I am always there for them and do not end up alienating them. I will never judge them. I want them to be independent, able to make their own decisions and stand up to injustice from outside the family or from their father.
I accept that my daughters can be afraid of me and will consciously try to make sure that I am approachable and caring. For the many fathers of this world, it is always good to remember that one day our daughters will leave home and build their own lives. It is up to us to create relationships with our daughters that they will find comfort in, that they will want to come back to, and pass on to their own families. Insights of my daughters two and seven years of age, the children, their parents and grandparents, and efforts of SAHAJ, VSO, WOREC and others who work in this field help improve us as individuals, families, communities, and fathers. Let our daughters’ hearts be free of fear in this wonderful world and at home.
The author, associated with the Spiny Babbler Knowledge Center, is an author of several books and has worked in communications for over a quarter of a century