Gender-based violence in Nepal: the long road to healing

Gender-based violence in Nepal: the long road to healing
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[This article was first published by Equal Times on 3 May 2021.]

The ‘shadow pandemic’. That is what the United Nations is calling the surge in violence against women and girls that began with the first Covid-19 global lockdowns. In Nepal, however, the shadow is very much in the forefront. Even before March 2020, gender-based violence (GBV) was a significant problem in Nepali society. According to the United Nations Population Fund, 48 per cent of Nepali women say that they have experienced some form of violence at some point in their lives, with 15 per cent experiencing sexual violence.

Getting accurate data on GBV is a major challenge in a country like Nepal, as the stigma associated with being a victim tends to keep women from reporting violence or seeking help. However, GBV manifests itself in many forms, ranging from domestic violence, dowry-related violence and child marriage to trafficking, female infanticide, so-called ‘honour killings’ and chaupadi (a now outlawed but still common tradition where menstruating women and girls are banished from their homes during their periods).

Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, as vital resources have been diverted from the women’s services, help has been even harder to come by, but a few NGOs have continued to provide invaluable help. One of these NGOs is Apeiron, a Kathmandu-based organisation that aims to tackle the violence, prejudice and social exclusion faced by women in Nepal by offering education, vocational training and support for micro-enterprise. Through its shelter Casa Nepal, it also provides pyscho-social support for GBV survivors. There, they can learn to feel safe again and start the long road to healing.

Between 2017 and 2020, the Italian photographer Giacomo d’Orlando worked with Apeiron and recorded their work in a project called Maheela Samsāra. “The title comes from two words: ‘Maheela’, which means ‘woman’ in Nepali, and ‘Samsāra’, the concept of rebirth and the cyclical nature of all life in the Hindu religion,” explains d’Orlando. “The word Samsāra speaks to the rebirth of these women. After a phase of life lived like a nightmare due to the violence they suffered, these women now have the opportunity to begin a new life.” He describes the project as a result of his “deep involvement” with Nepal and its people, cemented after a year spent volunteering with Apeiron in 2016. “In the beginning, I had no clue how deeply-rooted the social plague of gender-based violence was in Nepal. I was shocked by how many women suffered in silence so I decided to raise awareness about the issue.” D’Orlando says that he was inspired by the “courage and resilience” of the women he encountered and that he hopes his project “instils hope in those women who are afraid to stand up, letting them know that they are not alone in this battle because there are people ready to support them.”

 

A mural, painted on a wall in front of the Jamal bus station in Kathmandu, Nepal, says: ‘Stop violence against women’. Photographed on 21 November 2017.

Photo: Giacomo d’Orlando

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been an uptick in violence against women worldwide. But even before the pandemic, the World Health Organization reported that nearly one in three women (about 852 million women worldwide) were exposed to violence during their lifetime. Global initiatives – such as the United Nations Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), of which Nepal is a signatory, and the historic adoption of C190 by the International Labour Organization (ILO), a new convention and recommendation to help combat violence and harassment in the world of work – are important tools, but they are only meaningful if they are ratified and effectively implemented at the national level. So far five countries have adopted C190; Nepal is not yet one of them.

 

A woman sells cabbages on an empty street in Bhaktapur, Nepal on 28 April 2020.

Photo: Giacomo d’Orlando

Daily wage workers have suffered the worst impacts of the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic in Nepal. According to the ILO, approximately 5.7 million or 80.8 per cent of workers in Nepal work in the informal economy. These workers have no social protection coverage so if they stop working, they have no income. In addition, lockdown measures have seen informal workers, like the vegetable seller in this photo, experience a dramatic drop in income. Deprived of their only means of survival, many women have become even more financially dependent on their husbands as a result. In addition to cultural factors, economic dependence makes leaving a marriage where physical, psychological and sexual violence is present very difficult.

 

A young woman exchanges glances with a police officer who is patrolling the street during Nepal’s first lockdown in May 2020.

Photo: Giacomo d’Orlando

During the country’s first lockdown, between 24 March and 21 July 2020, there was a drastic change in the daily lives of everyday people in Nepal. Everything but essential shops was forced to close and the normally bustling streets of Nepal became totally deserted as the authorities attempted to limit the spread of the virus with a strictly enforced lockdown.

 

In this October 2017 photo, female police officers working with the Nepal Police Women, Children and Senior Citizens Service Centre in Kathmandu discuss a case.

Photo: Giacomo d’Orlando

Over the course of the pandemic, the work of the police section specialising in gender-based violence has increased drastically. During the pandemic, women and girls have been at higher risk of various forms of domestic violence. The police work closely with social services and NGOs to provide support victims and provide them with access to justice.

 

Sanchita (in the red top and blue scarf) is helped by workers from Casa Nepal as they remove her from her home in Udaypur in Parsa District so that she can get help at their mental health facility five hours away in Kathmandu. Photograph taken in November 2017.

Photo: Giacomo d’Orlando

After having received a call for help from concerned neighbours in Udaypur, 44-year-old Sanchita – who developed mental health issues after she suffered repeated violence at the hands of someone in her village – is rescued by mental health support staff from Casa Nepal. “The police called us and reported two women who were victims of violence and who had developed mental health issues,” explains d’Orlando, who was working with the NGO at the time. “The police did not want to come to the village because there was no policing issue but we realised that the women needed help. Over a couple of days, we spoke to the women and convinced them that we could help them.” Sanchita ended up spending a year at Casa Nepal before she felt able to return home.

 

In this November 2017 photograph, Pramila cries as she recounts her experience of domestic violence at the hands of her husband and his family to a psychologist at Casa Nepal.

Photo: Giacomo d’Orlando

As the psychologist listens to and comforts Pramila, she fills out a Gender-Based Violence Information Management System form, which allows practitioners to log the details of each incident and gather valuable data which in turn helps to improve the services and support available to survivors. While at Casa Nepal, the women undergo therapy, are provided pyscho-pharmacological support, educational classes, peer support and relaxation techniques to help them with the rehabilitation process. The aim is to help rebuild trust and restore the women’s sense of control, as well as their sense of self.

 

Samiska, photographed on 15 November 2017, holds her damaged hand.

Photo: Giacomo d’Orlando

As a result of the violence that she has suffered, Samiska no longer has full use of her left hand. As a victim of domestic violence, whenever she was hit, she would clench her fist tightly, almost as a reflex. Now that she is safe, she suffers from severe cramp and cannot open her hand.

As well as living with the physical effects, GBV survivors must also deal with the fear of further violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, social stigma, and loss of income or security if a woman has to leave a home or job to escape the violence.

 

Laxmi makes her bed at Casa Nepal in November 2017.

Photo: Giacomo d’Orlando

Laxmi is an orphan from Ramechhap, about 150 kilometres from Kathmandu. She began to engage with services provided by Apeiron at a young age and was brought to Casa Nepal where she followed literacy programs and cooking classes in a safe environment. After a year at the rehabilitation facility, she returned to her local community where she is currently working as a cook in a local hotel.