This year marks the 100 years of the abolishment of the 'Sati' (self-immolation of widow) system by the then Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shumshere. Nepal banned 'Sati' pratha 91 years after India declared it an act of offence in 1829 due to the efforts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. 'Sati' system is the ancient practice in Nepal as well as in some parts of India, in which wives and mistresses of a deceased man used to take their own lives by burning themselves in the funeral pyre of their man. Although this custom was considered to be a voluntary act, it was believed that at some instances women were forced to follow this tradition against their wish. After many years of such practice, the Rana Prime Minister lawfully abolished it in Nepal during the time when doing so was not an easy task. In modern day and age, there is no existence of such ill practice whatsoever in Nepal but there are still several acts of violence against women and girls, which are taking place every day.
In Hindu culture, women are worshipped as goddesses in various forms. In Nepalese culture, presence of five young virgin girls as "Panchakanya" is considered auspicious during special events and occasions while welcoming distinguished guests. Worshipping girl child as "Kumari" is practiced in Newari culture since the time immortal. Similarly, primary Hindu festivals like Bada Dashain and Deepawali revolve around female goddesses like Durga, Laxmi, Saraswati and Kali and have major significance in these festivals. However, the irony is that when we look at the real predicament of women and girls, the actual treatment of Nepalese women in the home and the community in modern day, is in contravention to such ancient traditions. If we turn back the pages in the history, the culture of treating women as goddesses seems to be originally practiced in order to worship them in the real sense, but with changing time people's thought processes seems to have changed and they have forgotten the main rationale behind the culture. People's mind-set and regressive thought processes have led to suppression of women in various forms and violence against women and girls are taking place every single day.
As per a report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 48 percent of Nepalese women have experienced violence at some point in their lifetime, amongst which 27 percent of them have experienced physical violence. Gender Based Violence (GBV) is a product stemming from various factors which includes power imbalance between women and men, varying levels of inequality between a girl and a boy child since the birth, discriminatory social norms and practices, poverty, illiteracy and low level of education, patriarchal thinking processes, absence of strict enforcement of laws which address GBV, unemployment amongst women and their economic dependence on their partners, drug abuse and alcoholism, multiple sexual relationships and affairs and many more.
Many studies indicate that Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) is currently a growing problem in Nepal. As per media reports, more cases have been registered at police stations with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can say that the things have got even worse than before. The lockdown has exacerbated the situation and there is further increase in the violence against women and girls in Nepal. According to the Women's Rehabilitation Center (WOREC), during the lockdown period, there were 624 reported cases of VAWG from 55 districts in Nepal. As per the National Women Commission (NWC) of Nepal, large number of women report the cases of domestic violence and abuse in the 24-hour helpline operated by it every day. There are still many women who remain tight-lipped and do not report the cases, because of which getting the exact data of the GBV cases in Nepal is a challenge. A survey done by UNFPA tells that 61 percent of women who experience domestic abuse in Nepal never report it. The main reason for women not reporting the cases is the fear they have of the abuser and the victim-shaming attitude of the society they live in.
During this COVID-19 crisis period, we have been hearing a lot about "Stay Home, Stay Safe" and this is a reasonable quote to make considering the nature of the virus. But this quote may not be applicable to certain women who do not feel safe at all at home being confined and isolated with the abusers themselves; sometimes their husband and in some cases their in-laws. Every day we are hearing news and reports about domestic violence and intimate partner violence. According to a report by a human rights NGO Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC), during the 54 days lockdown period, there were 269 reported cases of domestic violence in Nepal and 23 women have been killed by their own family members. On 5th of April, there was a news report from one online media about a man from Inaruwa, Sunsari trying to kill his wife and two minor daughters by setting fire on them. As per the police, the man had sprinkled kerosene, set fire on them and ran away and further investigation was being carried out by the police on the incident.
Further, rape and sexual assault is sky rocketing and remains most occurring GBV. On April 25th, there was a news report of a 25-year-old man working as a conductor was arrested by the police from the Chandragiri Municipality on a charge of raping a 22-year-old woman while she took a ride from Dhading to Kathmandu. Similarly, on 4th of July, there was a report of a 16-year-old boy being arrested from Sanibheri Rural Municipality in charge of raping a 6-year-old minor. These are just the few examples from many. Sexual abuse and exploitation have been taking place in the COVID-19 quarantine facilities as well. There has been a report of a gang rape case which occurred inside one of the quarantine facility in Nepal. A woman who was staying at a quarantine facility in Lamki Chuha Municipality-1, Kailali was allegedly gang raped. The victim had told the police that she was raped by three volunteers working at the quarantine facility set up by the government in Shahid Smriti Secondary School where she was staying after her return from India. Quarantine facilities which are supposed to be safe and secure place should not become the crime ground for women's exploitation and abuse, because these are direct under the supervision of the government.
These all situation makes us re-think whether is it worth celebrating the 100 years of abolishment of ill practice like 'Sati' system when still there are other acts of violence and exploitation of women which are taking place in Nepal starting from the home, community and now even to the quarantine centers during the time of health pandemic? Safety and security of the women and girls should be the top-notch priority of the government and strong law enforcement with regard to GBV needs to be done in order to eradicate the ill treatment of women. Further, the end of Sati doesn't end the plight of widow, because, Nepal's New Civil Code is still biased against widow remarriage since it has not provided legal safeguards against loss of inheritance. Instead, it has made mandatory for the widows, who wanted to remarry, to return the property that they inherited from their deceased husband. Due to this, widow population is gradually increasing in the country. Not only that, this has created psychological trauma in the widow women. On the other hand, there is a social norm to remarriage by a widower (or man) after the death of his wife, with no legal restrictions.
Laws should not just be in papers, rather should be brought into practice and strong punishments needs to be given to the perpetrators and penalise them by the concerned authorities. Women should be given the honour and respect that they deserve. Rather than victim blaming, they should be lent shoulder and sympathise with them and provide necessary support. Provision of legal aid needs to be provided to women sufferers. Strong health system needs to be in place in order to ensure that necessary health services are easily accessible to women who have suffered from violence. Increasing awareness in the communities about the GBV through television, radio and social media needs to be done in today's day and age. Temporary shelter and psychological counselling needs to be provided to the sufferer at the time of crisis like COVID-19. Government and policy makers should consider GBV as of the utmost priority and should address it in the COVID-19 response plan. The obligation to ensure access to justice to the victimised women must be strictly observed and bring into practice. Only if the crime against women is eradicated, we can really celebrate the success of the abrogation of ill practices against women from Nepal.
The author is the alumna of Gender and Development Studies at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand.