Being a girl
Abha Eli Phoboo
Saraswati Tamrakar was in class seven when a boy proposed to her. She didn’t know what to do or how to handle it. “I would sit and think for hours,” she recalls. Psychologically stressed out, she felt herself assaulted by numerous fears. She couldn’t tell others and already she felt like everybody disliked her because of the event. Friends teased and she didn’t know how to react. She could not tell her family and began to lose concentration. Her world was crumbling. Saraswati is now in class eight and studying in Sri Sukra Raj School, Pokhara. She works with a group that aims to identify and create safer environment for girls. “We need to protect girls and just educating is not enough,” states she. “A girl needs a safe environment that builds her confidence. Our objective is to help other girls keep their self-esteem strong. Boys do not understand the havoc they could create in our lives.” Living in a patriarchal society often makes being a girl difficult. Given that the traditional values are quick to blame the female, girls find it difficult to broach the subject of boys to their parents.
Santosh Poudyal is a 13-year-old boy in class eight in Sri Satyawati Madhyamik Vidyalaya, Damauli. He is an active member of the group working for a safer environment for girls. “In my school, somebody would write this girl’s name everywhere. The distraught girl cried and couldn’t study. Eventually, she stopped coming to school,” is his reason for joining. “I told my friends to stop teasing girls but they wouldn’t listen. They’ve stopped, I can explain why. Once a girl slapped a boy who was teasing her.” Poudyal shares such issues with his younger sister and encourages her to do the same with him. Boys understand to an extent, says he, but the girls need to speak up too.
In the villages, girls are married off at an early age and lack of education creates high risks. A few years ago, 16 girls in Surkhet got together and established a group for self-empowerment to face such issues. Save the Children UK provided support and encouragement. Helen Sharma, 16, is one of them. “We learnt so much that we decided to involve other children and women’s groups in our activities and discussions,” shares Helen. “In the beginning, they would chase us out. But once we stopped a friend’s marriage and helped her find the confidence to speak out against her parent’s decision, people began to take us seriously.”
Now, this group has spread beyond the district with sub-groups in 10 wards. “We did not involve boys because we don’t think we can trust them,” says Helen. “Girls share their stories knowing that we are trustworthy. We do ask boys for support though. We look at things and investigate cases often employing the help of the police. Girls are treated badly even in schools where male teachers tend not to take girls seriously.” Most of the cases that these girls deal with pertain to sexual harassment. Save the Children UK brought these children to Kathmandu for an interaction programme. Jasmine Rajbhandary, head, Advocacy Support Unit of Save the Children UK, says, “We want to help create safer spaces for girls and to do this we need to recognise the unsafe spaces and come up with an action plan. These children are making changes at the local level. Girls’ requirements are different from those of boys or women and project development must cater to appropriate development and inclusion of safe environment. Cinema halls, bus stops and even police stations have been identified as unsafe zones.” Girls are given scholarship to encourage formal education but often they drop out of school due to psychological trauma. With age, the problems that they have to confront with grow more complicated. From love letters and proposals, often it turns to sexual harassment in public places, assault and battery and even rape.
Januka Bhattarai of Shakti Samuha, an NGO working for women who have been victims of such violence shares that there are many women in Nepal living in such conditions. “Women endure various forms of abuse just because they are women. They refrain from talking about it because the society blames them and families don’t listen. We cannot talk about it, so who do we tell?” People say that women bring it upon themselves, they are teased because they wear provocative clothes. If this is so, then why are women in traditional dresses teased? Why was a 32-year-old domestic worker raped? According to the UN report on the Commission on the Status of Women (February 2000), at least one in three women and girls has been beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime.