Domestic burden: Young wives in Nepal face violence for 'falling short'
In Nepal, violence against women is reaching epidemic proportions. A recent national survey by the Nepali government showed a staggering 48% of women had experienced some form of gender-based violence (GBV) at some point in their lifetime, and over a quarter had experienced GBV in the past 12 months.
Geeta Pradhan, VSO’s head of programming for gender and inclusive governance in Nepal, believes that although violence in Nepal is ‘endemic’, it often goes ‘unrecognised and underreported’.
In response, VSO research has looked into the experience of young wives in the Baglung district of Nepal, a place where women experience domestic abuse every day. It finds that they face enormous pressures, with everything they do put under the microscope. Women are left with very little personal or financial freedom.
VSO conducted over 40 in-depth interviews with married women and other community members, and held six focus groups, exposing the difficulties of everyday life for these women.
Wives in training
Preparation for the role of wife begins at an early age. In Nepali families, gender roles are strictly defined on patriarchal lines. Men work jobs to earn money, wives are responsible for the children and household chores. As for the children, they are in training for the roles they will one day be expected to perform.
Daughters are overlooked, considered their fathers’ property until they marry, while boys are given access to better education, with families often sending their sons to private school.
When girls hit puberty, this can also impact their education. Girls are routinely pulled out of class when menstruating, and at home are segregated from the rest of the family and can’t visit the temple or handle food.
Geeta was shocked by the treatment of girls during menstruation: ‘It must be so traumatising, especially for girls that are discriminated against by their family. Some girls sleep on the floor for three days with just a small blanket during menstruation.’
Marriage represents a monumental shift for the women living in the Baglung district of Nepal. It’s customary for women to move out of the familial home to live with their husband and in-laws, where they become responsible for the house, children and farm work.
This life can be very isolating. Many men travel abroad for work, with long spells working as migrant labourers to earn money for the family. The research showed that upon their return, arguments can break out because husbands suspect their wives of mismanaging money, or spending frivolously.
Because of the fear that someone would say something, I couldn’t sleep through whole nights.
These women are subject to constant complaints, insults and threats, constantly scrutinised. It doesn’t take much for these disputes to erupt into violence. However, it’s not just the husbands who are responsible. It’s common for mothers-in-law to instigate arguments, and sometimes even join in with the violence.
One married woman shared her experience after moving in with her new husband and in-laws:
‘One day I was working and my mother-in-law shouted at me. She gave me an option to leave or stay. She said that I made everyone fight and she does not want me anymore. Then I tried to go to my parent’s house. She yelled at me saying that I am my father’s wife and I had not brought any property to her.
“They wanted me to leave. My husband said he would leave me at my parents’ house the next day. I came back home to my in-laws. That night, my mother-in-law choked me and asked me to return her jewelleries. I said “If I die, go to the cremation site to get your jewelleries and if I elope, my next husband will give you the jewelleries. Kill me.”’
Some women are made to eat dinner away from the family, while others are expected to stay up all night, ready to greet any visitors, and have little sleep. This is all to maintain a good reputation at home and in the community.
A new outlook
There is some hope. Many young girls recognise the need for education and aspire to have careers – they see it as an opportunity to gain independence.
In one of the interviews, one teenage girl spoke about the importance of education: ‘We need to come to school daily. If we do not attend school, we cannot achieve our aim of becoming doctors, or engineers, as we cannot gain education staying back at home. Thus we must come to school, pick up what is taught at school by our teachers and pursue our dreams of becoming doctors and so on’.
Geeta wasn’t expecting this. ‘I was surprised how younger women aspired to be economically independent and earn enough money to support their families. The girls found being unemployed stressful.’
The research into GBV was part of VSO’s One Community One Family (OCOF) project supported by What Works - a UK Aid-funded global initiative to tackle GBV.
Our findings are being distributed within government, as well as non-governmental bodies, and national and international forums. The hope is that this will draw attention to the issue of violence against women and girls in Nepal, and change things for the better.
The OCOF project has delivered gender training to 356 married men and women from 100 families affected by migration in Baglung district, changing attitudes to women and aiming to reduce exploitation and violence.