Violence against women: Slippery path to justice

Actions must be taken to strengthen the victims and witness protection

mechanisms, implement a gender justice framework and anti-discrimination laws, strengthen free legal assistance, and to ensure speedy access to justice mechanisms

26-year-old Rama Adhikari [not her real name] from a remote village in Khotang district was raped by her husband almost every night during the six months in which they lived together.

Despite the fear of being ostracized by her family and community, she decided it was time to bring her case into the light when her husband started becoming extremely violent.

With support from a local women’s group that put her in touch with a lawyer, Rama was able to file her case in court.

In 2015, the Act to Amend Laws to End Gender Violence and Ensure Gender Equality Act, which amended 32 discriminatory laws and provisions were enacted. The amendments included changing the statute of limitation on rape cases from 35 days to 180 days.

In Rama’s case, thanks to the Act, the court will be able to consider marital rape from a six-month period instead of only one month.

Over the years, women in Nepal have seen how their rights are being better protected. The Constitution of Nepal (2015) includes many provisions that ensure women’s empowerment and gender equality.

It clearly envisions Nepal as an inclusive state and guarantees the right to equality for all its citizens. However, much of the change exists only on paper.

Accessing justice remains difficult for women in general, and is almost impossible for the poor and vulnerable groups of women from the remote rural areas.

Nepal has one of the highest levels of female child mortality in South Asia. It also has the third highest rate of child marriage in Asia, after Bangladesh and India, according to UNICEF.

The 2011 Nepal Demographic Health Survey states that one in five Nepali women aged 15-49 have experienced physical violence at least once. Women are not safe where they should feel the most protected - at home.

More than a quarter of married, and almost one third of divorced or separated women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner. Deep-rooted discriminatory attitudes and social norms towards women condone or normalize violence against women.

The same authorities that should be protecting women – the police, the courts, and the judiciary – are failing women.

As Nepal marks the ten year anniversary of the Comprehensive Peace Accord, many women and girls are still suffering in silence, having experienced sexual violence that was rampant during the ten year conflict.

Assaulted, raped or tortured by the Maoists or the army, women and girls are suffering psychological trauma, being ostracized by their community due to stigma and left in a precarious position when their husband was killed or disappeared.

Conflict related sexual violence still remains largely unaddressed.

The prevalence of violence against women and girls has also been raised by the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee in its concluding observations to Nepal in 2011.

Often the cases of violence against women and girls go unreported, as the survivors fear stigma and tarnishing the family honour, and do not trust the justice system. Or simply, they do not have the financial means to take their case to the court.

According to a 2016 study on women’s access to formal justice conducted by the National Judicial Academy, the main hindrances are financial constraints, lengthy court procedures and language barriers.

Only one-third of the female court users are informed about the availability of the legal aid service. Continuous hearing is conducted in about half of the women’s rights related cases, and in-camera hearing in 40 per cent of the cases.

Confidentiality was maintained only in a quarter of women’s rights related cases, and only about 40 per cent of the court users - women victims of discrimination and violence, were found to seek immediate support from justice sector actors.

Development of a nationwide data collection programme is needed to effectively implement existing legislation and continued training and awareness raising for law enforcers or implementers, service providers and communities, specifically targeting men and boys.

Similarly, actions must be taken to strengthen the victims and witness protection mechanisms, implement a gender justice framework and anti-discrimination laws, strengthen free legal assistance, and to ensure speedy access to justice mechanisms.

The world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. Of the 17 goals that are integrated and indivisible, goal 5 aims to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” and includes specific targets to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls.

It has been globally recognized that ending violence against women and girls is a prerequisite for achieving sustainable development. UN Women stands to support the Government of Nepal in its efforts to achieve this goal.

The challenges faced by women are real and require our urgent attention.

Improving the system of delivery of justice to women must be a priority. Women should not need to wait longer for justice.

Kusuma is Representative, UN Women and Thapa is Programme Officer -- Ending Violence Against Women, UN Women