|© UNICEF Nepal/2007/ Mulmi|
|Radha and her daughter Sarita, 8, outside their home in Nepal.|
By Robin Giri
KAVRE DISTRICT, Nepal, 31 July 2007 – When 29-year-old Radha was married, she was shunned by her husband and in-laws, forbidden to enter their home and forced to live in a cow-shed. While working as a daily wage labourer to support her year-old daughter, she discovered that her husband had remarried in Kathmandu.
“I accepted as destiny my husband’s regular beatings and my mother-in-law’s indifference while she goaded him to abuse me,” Radha recalls. “I began to think that even the gods had abandoned me.”
Radha’s story echoes that of many Nepalese women who are subjected to abuse, rape, property disputes and even accusations of witchcraft. Due to existing patriarchal attitudes in many communities, sexual abuse and gender-based violence are thought of as a private and shameful matter. Women and children are often silenced by their very own families.
However, Radha gained the courage to seek justice when she joined 53 other women for a three-day orientation on creating a Village Paralegal Committee. “During the training I learned my husband was bound by law to provide for me, and that I had a right to a share of his property,” Radha says.
Not an easy task
UNICEF initially created the community-based Village Paralegal Committee Programme in 1999 as an anti-trafficking effort. Now, there are more than 4000 Village Paralegal Committees addressing all forms of violence and exploitation.
Challenging ingrained cultural and societal practices is not an easy task. The existing legal framework in Nepal provides only limited protection for children and women.
|© UNICEF Nepal/2007/ Karki|
|The women of the Khanalthok Village Paralegal Committee.|
“I think the most notable thing that we have ever done is our campaign to ensure that widows received equal respect in society and were allowed to wear red again,” says the chairperson of the Khanalthok Village Paralegal Committee, Chandra Thapa Khanal, alluding to prevailing Hindu social customs that ostracize widows and prevent them from wearing the traditional colour of happiness and celebration.
Support for legal action
Over the years, the village committees have expanded to become community networks that provide women a social outlet as well as monetary loans at a discounted rate of interest. The committees typically comprise 13 to 15 women volunteers supported by lawyers and social activists, who help the women if it becomes necessary to take legal action – as it was in Radha's case.
“In the beginning, we tried talking to the husband and in-laws about providing Radha a roof over her head and a means to a livelihood,” says the Khanalthok Village Paralegal Committee chair. “Since they were defiant, we decided to take the matter to the district court.”
With support from committee members and her neighbours, Radha now has her own house. She grows rice and maize on her tiny plot of land and supplements her income with agricultural work for others. Her daughter Sarita, 8, attends school.
“What makes me happiest is the thought that my daughter will get an education,” says a beaming Radha. “That she will someday get a job and never, ever have to depend on the inheritance of some man.”