Notes from the Field

The UK Turns High-Level Attention to Nepal’s Fight Against Gender-Based Violence

June 22, 2011

On June 12, the UK’s Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone, arrived in Kathmandu on a three-day visit to share her experiences in combating violence against women and to learn how Nepal is tackling the issue. Heralded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) as the new “Violence Against Women Champion,” it is no surprise that Ms. Featherstone chose Nepal as her first destination on her visit to the region.

Minister Featherstone meets with Minister with the Chief Secretary Madhav Prasad Ghimire.

In a conversation with Nepal's Chief Secretary Madhav Prasad Ghimire, Minister Featherstone discusses the country's successes and challenges in the fight against violence against women.

Minister Featherstone’s deep interest in tackling all forms of inequality and violence against minority and vulnerable groups has been a trademark of her service in Parliament. She is a powerful advocate for the eradication of gender-based violence (GBV), not only in the UK but also in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and now, Nepal. DFID is also one of the leading donors committed to combating GBV in Nepal.

In Nepal, GBV is a pressing human rights crisis that is especially prevalent in a country still recovering from an 11-year conflict that exponentially increased women’s vulnerability to rape, domestic violence, verbal and psychological abuse, and physical and sexual torture. GBV is also a socio-cultural aberration in many districts, and takes on many forms such as child marriage, abuse from in-laws, dowry-related violence, polygamy, Deuki (a ritual offering of young girls to the gods), Chhaupadi (the practice of keeping a menstruating woman in a small shed away from the main house), and accusations of witchcraft.

A Nepali woman walks to the market.

In Nepal, gender-based violence is a pressing human rights crisis that is especially prevalent in a country still recovering from an 11-year conflict.

According to the Foundation’s Preliminary Mapping of Gender-Based Violence in Nepal, 43 percent of women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. Between 5,000 and 12,000 girls and women 10 to 20 years of age are trafficked every year, 75 percent of whom are below 18, and the majority of whom are sold into forced prostitution both in Nepal and abroad.

Since 2010, DFID and The Asia Foundation have partnered on a project that supports the GBV Unit formed in 2009 in the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers to oversee and coordinate all government policy and interventions on GBV. Minister Featherstone’s visit illustrates the increasing visibility and impact of the GBV Unit, punctuated by its central role in drafting the National Plan of Action on GBV and shaping policy in the areas of sexual harassment, GBV, and amendments to existing discriminatory laws. The GBV Unit’s initiatives also mirror Minister Featherstone’s work on the UK’s country strategy to eliminate violence against women and girls.

Through our direct work with the Office of the Prime Minister, The Asia Foundation facilitated meetings with key decision makers at the policy level for Minister Featherstone during her visit to Kathmandu. She met with former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, one of Nepal’s biggest anti-GBV champions, as it was through his initiative that the GBV Unit was established. When in office, he also made combating GBV a top government priority by declaring 2010 as the year to combat GBV in Nepal. Minister Featherstone also met with members of the current government including Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara, Chief Secretary Madhav Prasad Ghimire, Justice Kalyan Shrestha, Chairperson of the Women’s Commission Nainakala Thapa, members of the Constituent Assembly, and of course, the GBV Unit staff.

Minister Featherstone said she was very impressed with Nepal’s domestic violence law and with the judiciary which has given landmark rulings on GBV and issues around homosexuality and third genders, noting that “those decisions were quite advanced and I hope the government will be driving them through at the highest level.” She also asserted that one of the key issues for women is access to justice and support of the rule and enforcement of law by the police. Regardless of how good the law is on a piece of paper, unless women experience improvements and commitment on the ground, justice is not being delivered.

Minister Featherstone’s observations during her brief visit resonate with the challenges that Nepal’s government faces in the fight against GBV. After several policy triumphs, the challenge now lies in on-the-ground implementation; a significant challenge as Nepal is a country with 102 different ethnic groups and 92 different languages, and GBV tends to be accepted as part of the “culture” among many groups. Furthermore, the ongoing culture of impunity also needs to be tackled. The law should be applied equally to all; this includes groups that generally enjoy immunity such as politicians, military and police personnel, and powerful elites. However, the government has a powerful tool in this fight, the GBV Unit. Its strategic location in the Office of the Prime Minister ensures that high-level attention and scrutiny be applied to all GBV cases requiring policy-level attention. The Foundation, with DFID support, will continue to work with the GBV Unit to further strengthen its ability so that it can not only ensure that laws are good on paper, but also in practice.

George Varughese is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Nepal, Diana Fernández is a program officer, and Surabhi Raj Bhandari is an intern, both in Nepal. They can be reached at gvarughese@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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