For lasting impact, we need both domestic violence laws and changing mindsets

November 29, 2021

Photo: Great Himalaya Trails

You will be giving a Kapuscinski Development Lecture on 30November on Gender Equality. What will you be talking about?

I will mainly be sharing my experiences as a women’s rights activist of three decades in Nepal, the South Asia region and globally. I will talk about the critical challenges that women of the region face in finding their voice and identity. Violence against women, particularly domestic violence, is the biggest deterrent to women’s advancement and development.  However, the lecture will also highlight how with collective movement building and a vibrant civil society, significant transformative changes can be possible. 

You have been advocating for women’s rights and gender equality both in Nepal and internationally for more than 3 decades. What is the landscape of women’s rights in Nepal, for instance?

Nepal is a predominantly in a patriarchal society. So the fact that women are inferior to men is deeply embedded in many societies. From the time that I started my activism, more than 30 years ago, significant changes have been made in terms of women's participation. In parliament, there is 33 percent participation; at the local level, more than 40 percent women; and at the hem of the governance, we have good electoral laws and Constitution.

But those predominant, patriarchal norms and values still stay embedded in many minds, from simple communities all the way to those who are in decision making positions. It’s internalized - you might be speaking in the political correct manner, but when it comes to actualizing that perspective, it's very difficult. People still think that women can't handle it, can’t be effective decision makers.

Another problem is that we women miss out on the numerous political dialogues that takes place informally. It's called “the men's club” of course: men get together informally during the day, afternoon evenings and cocktail parties, and they are abreast of political dialogue. So it's so easy for them to identify a man that they would want to appoint rather than a woman who they don't know.

This is the political scenario, but in many households, even today, women are treated as objects. And the “son” preference in Nepal is one of the highest in the world. A son carries on the lineage and opens the passage to heaven, that’s the belief; whereas the birth of the girl is looked upon as a burden. In fact with today’s technology, the discrimination actually starts before the birth. The gender of the child can be disclosed by doctors, so it's a fear that girls may not even have the right to be born.

This preference for boys shapes the society, political scenario and economic aspect of the entire country.

When did you first become aware of this discrimination and how did you start to address women’s rights?

I was not born a rebel. I grew up with two brothers and one sister, and I went through that discrimination without realizing that it was discrimination. You've been seeing it around and you think that's the way it is. It was only when I started work, and had the opportunity to go overseas to do a news and current affairs production course in the Netherlands. I was exposed to a different society, where you are asked your opinion. I didn't know how to give my opinion. When I was a child, I was taught not to talk back when you have elders and males speaking. At school, you just memorized whatever was written in the book. So I was amazed when older professors asked me what my opinion was. What did I think differently? Because no one asked me that kind of question. It was very difficult for me to respond back because I had never been taught to think analytically.

Slowly, I started responding back and was given due respect. So I think in my early 20s, I found my voice and my identity. I realized there must be thousands of women who never even have opportunities like me, who never recognize their potential, who never know what they are capable of. So that's what led me to my activism. As a journalist, I felt it's my duty to bring those stories of violence and discrimination to the policy table. Because I had that access. So I tried to play that bridge, and co-founded Saathi in 1992 with eight other women. Saathi means friend in Nepali, and we focused on domestic violence, because many women feel like there is nothing that they could do.

Saathi led a civil society advocacy for the promulgation of the Domestic Violence Law – can you talk more about that process?

We were the first organization in Nepal to address domestic violence, because before that, it was considered a very private topic, a taboo topic. Domestic violence is between a husband and wife, it's an internal affairs and you don't talk about it. We faced challenges from our families and friends, who discouraged us. But we were convinced that this is an area of grave concern.

First, we started raising awareness. But then we realized awareness is not adequate, because when women want to leave their homes, they have nowhere to go to. So, we founded the first women's shelter in Nepal in 1995. And then we realized we needed to collaborate with the police and the legal system, but with no law, even the police’s hands are tied. We were the first organization to draft a domestic violence act, and collaborated with the Social Welfare Council. But from the first draft of the act, we continued our advocacy: it took us 14 years for the act to be adopted. As I noted earlier, networking was not a concept that was very common for women. So we were trying to do our best, you know, but over the years, as we intensified the advocacy, we realized we need to have a collaborative approach. So we connected with several organizations, community based organizations, grassroots organizations, and other legal organizations.

Networks are important, your strategic thinking and collective vision is important. Communication is important.  In the last years, we did a very heavy media campaign.The right messages and mobilizing and partnering with key media is extremely important. But you have to understand when is the right time to do that public outreach.

All of that worked in the passing of the domestic violence law. It took us 14 years, but we learned a lot in the process.

Do you feel like the law has helped legitimize the problem and people are feeling like they now agree that domestic violence is a bad thing, or there's still a ways to go?

Laws do help, but laws alone do not help. Because if you have an embedded, strong mindset, , no matter how good the law is, it doesn't help. The law passed in 2009. In 2010, we were doing a community mobilization orientation program about what the law is, and a woman challenged us that no laws or research findings to eliminate violence against women would be of any use unless you change the mindset and attitude of the men in our households.

“I’m aware of the law and have been teaching others also in my community. I know the nearest police station. But even I’m compelled to live in a violent relationship, have not had the courage to go to the police or write a complaint. First, it might take several years. Second, I will need resources which I don't have. Third, when my husband knows, even the little he provides will be taken away. I can’t return to my material home, they will not accept me. So I am going to go through a worse fate.”

I realized strengthening laws is not enough. We also needed programs that address the mindset of men. I initiated the Engaging Men & Boys program in Nepal at the local and national level. We have partnered with the All Nepal Football Association for a joint campaign “Our Goal: Stop Violence Against Women” since 2011. Through this campaign, we have reached out to the enormous fan following of footballers, predominantly boys and youth. When you involve positive male allies in the activism towards eliminating violence against women, the response and acceptance level is quicker and more effective.

Thank you so much. It sounds like very inspiring and successful work. It also shows how we have to work to change things on many levels, from structural to personal and how intertwined they are. We look forward to hearing this in more details on 30 November.

For more info, visit The lecture will be hosted by the University of Utrecht and streamed live online. Register here

The Kapuscinski Development Lectures are jointly organized by UNDP, the European Commission and partner universities, bringing top global thinkers to discuss development topics with university students and the public.