Despite its progressive laws, Nepal still has high rates of gender-based violence (GBV), with almost half of women experiencing violence at some point in their lives (1). Similarly, it has the third highest rate of child marriage in Asia, with more than two in five 20-24 year olds married by the age of 18. The biggest challenge is spreading the message to rural communities,where GBV and child marriage are often normalised, that these behaviours are damaging and illegal. When we were told there was an opportunity to raise awareness of these issues in the form of a rally near our village, we were keen to take part.
The rally was organised as part of an internationally-observed 16 day programme on raising awareness of GBV, running from 25th November (International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women) until 10th December (International Day of Human Rights) (2).
In Nepal, the main instances of GBV include domestic violence, female infanticide, trafficking for sexual exploitation and Chhaupadi, where women on their periods are banned from engaging in normal activities (such as eating in the kitchen or sleeping in the house) because they are considered impure. These can result in disrupted education, a lack of professional opportunities, teenage pregnancy and increased rates of sexually transmitted diseases due to a lack of understanding of sexual and reproductive health.
Another negative consequence of these issues is incidences of eloping, where young couples run away from home together to escape unwanted marriages. Eloping has been on the increase in recent years, in part due to internet accessibility and the chance to meet people from social media. It is hoped that reducing child marriage may also reduce rates of elopement.
Early in the morning of Friday 9th December, me and the other volunteers in my community left our village, Jaruwarashi, and headed with excitement to the nearby town of Bajrabarahi, carrying posters we'd made the day before. Only a few days previously in the same town we had said goodbye to the rest of our UK and Nepali friends to go our separate ways to our respective communities. We hadn't expected to be back so soon, and were soon swept up in the preparations for the march.
We met with around 250 others outside Godwari municipality office, whose women and child department had organised the rally. We had arrived in good time and set to work arranging sashes, passing around leaflets and attaching white ribbons (these signify that the wearer will not tolerate violence). There was a variety of people there, both men and women, young and old, from social activists to local community members and non-governmental organisations to the police. Everyone was very welcoming.
Soon the rally was underway. No roads had been closed, but the police, also wearing sashes and ribbons, helped us to negotiate the traffic. It was great to see the enthusiasm of the kids in the school buses driving by us, and in fact most people we passed seemed supportive and keen to learn more. As we went, we gave them leaflets and shouted slogans both in English and Nepali: 'Gender-based violence is not acceptable to us.'
About an hour later we reached Thecho and stopped in a square just off the main road. There was drumming and music to welcome us, and soon chiya (sweet milk tea) and biscuits were being freely passed around. There were several speeches and some street drama illustrating the effects of GBV and what can be done to help survivors. The mood was positive and hopeful: we had reached many people and raised awareness of important issues that morning.
We left Thecho clutching our posters to put up on the walls of our schools, feeling invigorated, but we knew there is still so much more to do.
According to a government survey of 900 Nepali women, only a quarter were aware of services available to survivors of GBV and most women who had experienced GBV never told anyone. Additionally, less than 1 in 10 women were aware that rape within marriage is illegal.
Behind these statistics are women who feel helpless and alone, and who don't know they have a right to a better life. This is why raising awareness of both GBV and child marriage is so important. The Nepal government has made both issues illegal, but it is behaviour, especially in rural areas, which needs to shift. While our focus in schools will be on livelihoods and employment, we will run extra sessions wherever possible to keep the conversation going on these crucial issues.
The rally is just the start.