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Nepal: A snapshot of violence
By Hanaa Singer, UNICEF Representative Nepal

The following op-ed was published in the Kathmandu Post on 31 January 2013.

5 February 2013 - The recent horrific reports of violence against women and children have been heartbreaking and infuriating. The continuous occurrence of these heinous crimes has prompted a national outpouring of grief and angry protests against a government and a society which are perceived to have done little to tackle the problem.

The outrage is justifiable and even encouraging, a sign that the citizens of Nepal have had enough of silence and lowering their eyes, and now demand action.
We often say that women and children are the life-force of Nepal. We also often say that the impact of violence is incalculable, that the economic and social costs are staggering, and that they impede economic growth and human development.

Yet, violence continues. Women and children continue to be assaulted, trafficked inside and outside the country for the purpose of sexual and labour exploitation, exposed to unnecessary degrading, harmful traditional and discriminatory practices, and forced to marry before maturity. In the name of patriarchal values and norms, women and children are confined to secondary roles in society, denied voice and agency, and often forced to directly bear or witness violence.

Here is the snapshot: in Nepal, in accordance to the Demographic Health Survey of 2011, one in three women aged 15-49 have experienced physical violence since the age of 15, and nine per cent reported experiencing physical violence within the past 12 months.

What the statistics don’t capture is that behind each case of physical violence against a woman, there is a case of psychological violence against a child who has witnessed how violence has been inflicted on the mother. What the statistics don’t capture is the culture of silence behind physical and mental bruises inflicted on these women. It is the culture instilled by society where the ‘ijjat’ of the family forces women to keep silent and bear it all.

Violence is a learned behaviour. Many children who directly witness violence grow up to repeat the same behaviour as citizens, spouses and parents. In homes where one parent perpetrates violence against the other parent, the children are at much higher risk of being also abused. We all know that children experiencing violence inside or outside the home are more likely than others to exhibit aggressive and anti-social behavior or to suffer from depression or anxiety. Children from violent homes show higher levels of anger, hostility, oppositional behaviour, poor self-esteem and poor social relationships. They also experience difficulties in school and tend to be subjected to lower cognitive development.

This co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment, this interface of women’s and children’s rights provides a powerful space to challenge the infringement of women’s rights and other forms of violence in the name of culture and hold the state accountable for the failures to guarantee to every child and to a every woman, the right to a life free of violence.

As we all look for answers and effective ways to fundamentally challenge what allows violence to continue we also need to think about what can actually be done to end this.

Violence is a multi-faceted phenomena that needs to be tackled through multi-layered strategies to address its structural causes. Enhance women’s and children’s participation in social support networks; create adequate medical, legal, psychological and social support services for survivors of violence; formulate laws with bigger teeth and ensure that mediation and reconciliation are used only for minor offences and will not encourage recidivism; and most importantly, ensure that all crimes against women and children are investigated, prosecuted and punished are only some of the measures that governments can take to prevent and respond to this problem. It is only then that women will have the courage to speak out, and that is the biggest deterrent to those who inflict violence on them.

It is undeniable that Nepal has progressed and invested a lot especially to combat gender based violence but victims frequently fall through the cracks of the system and remain excluded from services and protection. The situation of children continues to be alarming. Laws are weak and outdated, services almost inexistent and primarily provided by civil society organisations, mandates of competent authorities still unclear, and too often the destiny of children is decided by unprepared bureaucrats, and not by the courts, with the assistance of psychologists and social workers.

This situation needs to be stopped and while we all work towards strengthening the authorities and gradually ensure that they meet their obligations, we also need to have the courage to challenge traditional attitudes.

Violence is a culture and violence is a choice. A society that chooses not be violent needs to learn to challenge the way gender roles and power relations are articulated, and need to develop the courage to change people’s attitudes and mentality towards women and children. As the Representative of an international organisation that promotes the realisation of children’s rights, I urge that boys be educated to respect girls and women and to recognise their valuable contribution in the complex development and peace process of the country.

Breaking the cycle of violence is a difficult but urgent undertaking that cannot be postponed or justified any longer. The concerted collaboration and action between government and non-governmental actors, including educators, health care authorities, legislators, law enforcement, the judiciary and the mass media is key, and we need to act fast.

From our side, we will do all what is within our mandate and capacity to support this effort and ensure that the quest of Nepal for progress and peace will be an inspiration for all of us.

Singer is the UNICEF Nepal Representative.

Photo credit: © UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0900/Brian Sokol

Photo caption: A girl, carrying a blanket on her head, stands outside as night falls in Sawa Khola Village, Mugu District of Nepal.

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