But layers of fear and prejudice deter others from speaking up
- ARPAN SHRESTHA, Kathmandu
Thirty-seven-year-old J was asleep when her husband returned home drunk and poured kerosene on her private parts and set her alight, inflicting third-degree severe burns on her body. Her sister-in-law came to her aid and helped douse the fire, after which she was treated at home with herbal medicines.
Days later, J was taken to Seti Zonal Hospital after her wounds developed an infection. While she was receiving treatment, her husband tried to kill her-again. The medical staff intervened at the right moment, after which the husband was arrested and sent to prison. J was then brought to the Teaching Hospital for reconstructive surgeries, after which she spent nearly three months in a shelter home. J’s ordeal was recounted to the Post by Pratiksha Giri and other officials at the Burns Violence Survivors-Nepal, who had spent time with her during her treatment in Kathmandu.
According to the non-profit group that supports survivors of burns, J is not alone in becoming a victim of harrowing domestic violence that involves attacking women with acid or setting fire to them. A recent report by the organisation said that from 2010 to mid-September 2018, a total of 251 cases-117 homicides, 108 suicides and 26 acid attacks-have been recorded across the country. Few, like J, survive such attacks.
“The psychological and emotional impacts of domestic violence are far from told and if the government doesn’t immediately regulate and record the sale and distribution of acid, the days are bleak,” Giri, executive director at the BVS-N, told the Post.
Women’s rights activists say the victims of domestic violence remain quiet because they fear the possible consequences of speaking up, and like J, are afraid of family members and a society deeply entrenched in the patriarchal culture.
“We need to empower women so that they can stand up against the abuses spewed on them. Once they file a case, the government or the concerned organisation will bring them under protection and counsel them in all possible ways,” said Menuka Thapa, founder chairperson of Raksha Nepal, an NGO. Thapa added that there are constraints to counselling in cases where women have gone through prolonged and excessive violence.
Counselling plays a significant part in healing the victims psychologically and instilling life skills in them but it is just a small part of the rehabilitation process as the women have hard choices to make, once they step out of the shelter homes. Most often, they cannot return to their homes as they could find themselves in a more complicated and unsafe setting but that is exactly what happens.
J had been married for 20 years, during which she was subjected to relentless domestic violence. She never got along with her mother-in-law and often had to endure her husband’s drunken behaviour. At the shelter home, where J received psychological support and life skills, she mustered enough courage to tell her real story and was ready to file a case against her husband.
But J ended up not filing a case at all. Instead, she changed her statement and went back home to her four children and to her husband who had somehow managed to contact her while in the shelter in Kathmandu.
“J and countless others changed their statements, which makes it impossible to file cases,” said Giri, who has responded to countless cases of burns violence across Nepal. “But we can’t blame them. They have their own realities and return home.”
But according to the most recent data, more women are reporting about domestic violence they suffer across the country.
In 2017, a total of 12,225 cases of domestic violence were registered with the Nepal Police, a huge upsurge compared to 1,800 cases reported in 2013.
The National Women Commission’s 24/7 toll-free helpline number ‘1145’ and online Case Management System received 47,968 calls from November 2017 to August 2018. Officials at the commission say they expect the reporting to more than double next year.
But more than the sheer volume of calls, which also included bluff and blank calls, what really stuns officials at the commission is the data generated by its online system. The first of its kind, the data categorises the typology of the ‘reported’ violence women have been subjected to—emotional (36 percent), economic (30 percent), physical (24 percent), and sexual (10 percent). “We are still processing the data but it is already clear that our interventions need major reconsiderations,” Palita Thapa, project manager at the commission, told the Post.
“When we deconstructed the registered cases, we discovered that economic abuse is one of the most frequently reported cases of violence, followed by physical violence. Our intervention approaches are too narrow to deal with these situations,” said Thapa, who asserted that the whole gamut of women empowerment and rehabilitation needed a new dimension.
The data also revealed that the highest incidence-60 percent-of domestic violence is in Kathmandu Valley and affected married women between 26 and 40 years the most. A further breakdown of the data showed that women from upper caste groups (44 percent) are affected the most.
The findings of the women’s commission are similar to the findings of the most recent Nepal Demographic Health Survey, which showed that nearly a third of all married women in Nepal had experienced some kind of physical, emotional and sexual violence from their husbands.
“This is not a new phenomenon. The data actually shows how widespread domestic violence is. The reporting of domestic violence has increased because there has and will continue to be an evolution in the way women think,” sociologist Shuvechha Ghimire told the Post.
One key intervention that the government has been commended for by women’s activists is that it is now working directly with health service providers to screen patients for possible symptoms of domestic violence-body aches, burns and cuts. “Health service providers have been directed to encourage and assist women who show up with signs of domestic violence to report their cases, with the police or concerned organisations,” said Roshni Laxmi Tuitui, director of Nursing and Social Security Division under the Department of Health Services. Tuitui added that a national door-to-door empowerment and surveillance programme would soon be undertaken.
But measures such as screening female patients and accommodating domestic violence survivors temporarily in shelter homes for counselling, medical treatment, and teaching them life skills only offer a brief respite. There have been cases, where survivors have returned to shelter homes after they experienced many severe forms of violence.
“It’s a hard legal system for survivors to navigate and this is clearly a problem,” Anna Gautam, a social researcher, told the Post. “There need to be fundamental changes in the course of actions following domestic violence and empowerment programmes should focus on boosting financial independence for women to prevent violence in the first place or to enable them to live independently rather than sending them home from shelters.” But Gautam was also quick to find holes in the women commission’s data.
“The commission’s data is urban-biased,” she said. “Women across the country are less likely to report as most of them are unaware that it is violence in the first place. The perpetrators of domestic violence should not go unpunished and even in the urban setting, where divorce rates are soaring, the legal recourse should be a second step.”
The data collected by the commission also shows that a lot of registered cases were mediated and attackers were rarely charged for their criminal behaviour. It is the same with how Nepal Police responds to distress calls or how the local governments, which report the highest cases of domestic violence, often end up mediating the disputes.
“Local governments now have sweeping powers that they can exercise to address domestic violence and they must generate awareness and take strong actions against the culprits and safeguard the survivors,” Minister for Women, Children and Senior Citizens Tham Maya Thapa told the Post. “The central government is always here to help and will introduce positive interventions at a national level.”
Additional reporting by Nayak Paudel.
Source: Kathmandu Post