BANDANA RANA is the chairperson of Sathi-Nepal, a leading NGO working to empower women and raise issue with gender discrimination. Rana worked as a journalist for a long time before she took up activism for the cause of women. She spoke to NEW SPOTLIGHT on various issues. Excerpts:
What is the state of violence against women in Nepal?
Violence against women is one of the major factors responsible for the exclusion of women from the mainstream of all development processes in Nepal. In spite of the efforts made by several governmental and nongovernmental organizations to address the issue, violence against women continues unabated. Researches and studies have indicated that women and girls continue to be subjected to physical, mental and sexual violence cutting across all lines of income, culture and class. The root of all kinds of violence perpetrated on women starts from the home in the form of domestic violence. A research conducted by Saathi with UNFPA in 2008 in Dang and Surkhet reveals that 81% of women face domestic violence frequently. This indicates that even the home is not a safe place for women. Social relations of power place women in a subordinate position, giving many women few rights in the family, community and society in general. This in turn impacts their health, access to education and their potential to be economically productive.
How do you see it in the context of armed conflict?
In addition, in the context of the decade long armed conflict and the volatile post conflict situation women have often become the target of violence. There has been an increase in sexual violence and sexual harassment. However, this remains largely invisible because of the lack of evidence, and adequate and proper documentation of women's human rights violations. Thus violence against women is a major development issue in Nepal that requires a comprehensive solution.
With your long experience in the struggle to establish women’s rights, how do you see the transformation taking place in Nepal?
When Saathi was established in 1992 to address particularly domestic violence against women, it was very difficult for us to find allies supporting our vision. Domestic violence against women was a taboo topic and perceived a very private affair to be sought out by the family themselves even when the woman family member was on the verge of death through extreme torture and violence. Also the culture of silence shrouding the issue and absence of law have encouraged violence against women to continue unhindered. However with increasing voices from the women’s rights organizations and the pressure created due to Nepal’s commitment to gender equality through international covenants, some progressive changes can be perceived.
Do you think the situation has really changed?
First of all, I think, silence is gradually breaking ground and today there have been incidences of women coming out to decry against the violence they face at home and in the society. With the changed political context, violence against women is gradually drawing national attention. The declaration of 2010 as the year against gender based violence and the launch of the National Action Plan can be taken as a positive indication. After more than a decade long advocacy from women’s rights organizations, domestic violence is finally recognized as a punishable crime through “Domestic Violence Crime and Punishment Act” passed by the CA in April 2009. Though the Act has many loopholes that need to be addressed the move has opened the door for securing the rights of domestic violence victims.
How do you look at the state of present change?
I think the present scenario has brought about some positive changes in promoting women’s rights. The 33 % women’s participation in the CA is another great achievement. However, this mechanism needs to be established in the future elections as well. Also the 33 % women’s participation need to be institutionalized in other state machineries as stated in the interim constitution.
Despite enacting new laws to prevent violence against women and providing constitutional guarantees, large numbers of women continues to face exclusion. What do you suggest?
I think the main problem lies in the lack of political will and serious internalization of the commitments made through policies and legislation. Plans and policies are made in Kathmandu without taking into account the infrastructure, human and financial implications, knowledge and capacity that are required to support the implementation of the plans at the district and community level. I think we should also have a strong monitoring mechanism. Perhaps coming up with national level women’s rights indicators to track the progress made would be helpful in this regard.
Despite the commitments of the government and Maoist rebel, many conflict-affected women are yet to get relief. As a member of the UNSCR 1325 National Action Plan Drafting team, how do you look at this?
Women have been the most affected by conflict. Many have lost their husbands, sons and brothers. Their children have been deprived of education. They have been the target of sexual and other forms of violence. Many young girls have been displaced and many due to lack of education and skill are forced to work in places where they are vulnerable to sexual violence. These are the kinds of cases that Saathi in the recent years is encountering in its different shelters.
How has Saathi has been supporting the cause?
In August, Saathi organized five regional consultations with women directly affected by conflict in the process of collecting their concerns for the development of the UNSCR 1325 & 1820 national action plan. In regard to the relief program their major complaints were that the relief program is not impartial, it is highly politicized and fraught with corruption. Only those with political connections have easy access to relief and compensation. We have tried to address these concerns in the five year NAP and also stressed on the provision of including participation of women conflict victims in the designing and disbursement plan of all relief and recovery programs. I do hope that the plan will be in effect soon and that justice will be provided to conflict victims. We the civil society and women’s groups are ready to collaborate with the government for the implementation of the NAP but will also be the watchdogs to monitor its effective implementation.
You have recently been nominated as the member of the Asia Pacific Advisory Committee for Women Peace and Security by UNESCAP. This must be in recognition of your more than two decade long contribution in promoting women’s rights not only in Nepal but across South Asia? Apart from your work in Nepal have you any plans for a regional initiative?
Almost all the countries in South Asia -- Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan and also India are plagued with internal armed conflict. Women of all these countries bear the heaviest cost of such conflict. In spite of that women’s participation in all peace building processes is very negligible, particularly in peace talks and political negotiations. This is of grave concern. Also in all of these South Asian countries, including Nepal, a culture of impunity prevails, particularly in relation to violence against women, including sexual violence. These are issues mandated by the UNSCR 1325 & 1820 and other proceeding Security Council resolutions.
What are the urgent needs of South Asia?
We, the women in South Asia, working in this sector have felt a dire need for collective regional input to address this issue and monitor the effective implementation of the UNSCR resolutions on women, peace and security. In this regard I am happy to inform you that very soon we are launching a “South Asia Women’s Alliance for Peace”. This alliance will be a platform to draw strength from each other through sharing of regional experiences, promote participation of women in all peace building processes, improve women’s access to justice and conduct relevant research. As one of the members of the Asia Pacific Advisory Group on Women Peace and Security from the civil society, I am confident that the learning I will gain from regionally coordinating this South Asia alliance will prove fruitful in providing relevant advice to the UNESCAP that will contribute to making the region a more secure place for women.
You have also been the regional coordinator of the South Asian Campaign for Gender Equality (SACGE) that spearheaded the campaign for a special women’s entity in the UN. Now that the UN Women is operational from January 1st 2011 what difference is it going to make?
SACGE is a South Asian campaign with over 200 organizations across South Asia that advocated for stronger and resourceful gender equality architecture in the UN. The campaign was first initiated as a national campaign from Nepal as “Friends of UNIFEM” in March 2006. SACGE later became part of the global campaign - GEAR (Gender Equality Architecture Reform).
How do you see the birth of UN Women?
The New UN Women has come into being through the merger of four existing distinct women's U.N. entities: the U.N. development Fund for Women (UNIFEM); the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues; the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women; and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW). UN Women will focus exclusively on gender equality and women’s empowerment and be as politically powerful and financially stable as other full-fledged UN Agencies. It is headed by the Under Secretary General Michelle Bachalet (former president of Chile).
How will it make things different?
The establishment of the UN Women will mean more effective and expanded programming for gender equality, more resources, sustained long term programming, increased prioritization for Gender Equality and stronger accountability and leadership and extensive field presence.
This is indeed a great victory for women's rights as well as for the coalition of women's and other civil society organizations that have worked hard for over four years to bring this entity into being. As it embarks on its journey of advancing women's’ human rights and achieving gender equality we hope that the UN Women will forge effective partnership with civil society from global to local/grassroots organizations to deliver results on the ground and ensure that all women can enjoy their full human rights.