Joseph Mayton, KATHMANDU (BM): The taxi slows, window down, the driver pushes his head out the window, whistles at two young women passing by. He reaches his hand out in an attempt to touch their bodies. For Nepali women, sexual harassment is an everyday issue, particularly in urban areas of the country and they are pushing for change in the country.
“Harassment is all over Nepal against Nepali women and the problem is so big,” said Pratiya Rana, a 22-year-old university student, and a volunteer of the country’s “Walk for Respect” demonstration last April 28, the Nepali version of the international protest movement, SlutWalk.
She said that she was harassed by a gang of local men in a village an hour from Kathmandu. “It is more of a problem where more people live, but it really is everywhere,” she argued.
“They pushed and shoved me and one man grabbed my breasts and asked me for sex when I was in another village,” Rana added, “and it is growing.”
Women dressed in short skirts, but with leggings, carried signs demanding change toward sexual harassment in the country, both in public spaces as well as in the workplace, where no legislation exists to protect women.
“The country is in two worlds, young and old and we young women want change. We demand the government protect the rights of women,” added Rana.
Around 500 women marched from central Kathmandu to the old city, Durbar Square, in an effort to publicize the rights of women. Their goals, issued in a statement published, were “to sensitize the greater problem among youths as well as other people [on] teasing and sexual harassment.”
The women talked of groping, pushing, verbal harassment including being solicited for sex and more violent forms, including rape.
The women also called for awareness of the few existing laws and policies in Nepal. But they did say the laws are week, citing the Nepal Public Offenses and Penalties Act of 1970, which says that “any activities or action that carries in sexual nature both verbally or physically” is harassment. The penalty is a NRS 10,000 ($120) fine and rarely jail.
New legislation was proposed in parliament earlier this year to criminalize harassment in the workplace, but it is an uphill battle for women’s advocates, who continue to languish silently against violations of their body and mind.
According to a new bill, proposed this year, perpetrators of sexual harassment in the workplace could face up to three months in jail and a NRS 25,000 fine, but it has yet to be discussed by lawmakers for passage.
Despite the optimism of a new bill, with a constitution still not finalized, and a deadline fast approaching, Rana and other activists feel it might be a “long time” before the bill is passed.
“I think people will see this as minor and it will be pushed back until we have new elections, and who know’s when those will be,’ argued Rana.
A far cry from deterring harassment from occurring, and commentators say even with legislation, convictions will be difficult.
Still, legislators are putting much of the blame for the growing sexual harassment problem in the country, where statistics do not exist, on women and what they are wearing.
“If one wears vulgar dresses and appears unnatural and gets stared at by people around, who is to be held guilty?” questioned lawmaker Sunil Prajapati in response to the bill.
“First they attract and excite others and then if comments are passed they call it sexual harassment. It´s not fair. The outfits and behavior the society cannot digest should also be considered punishable as well,” he argued while giving a speech in parliament.
Making matters worse still for women, said Rana, are female lawmakers who give credence to the idea that what a woman wears is a matter of debate.
“What if we are wearing short skirts and no leggings? Does that mean we can be groped, touched and violated? This is ridiculous thinking and something that should not even be discussed,” she said.
Female lawmaker Yashoda Subedi said that she understands the concerns of women in the country and believes that a middle ground can be achieved in order to create legislation against perpetrators of sexual harassment.
“We must be aware of what we are wearing and Nepali society is not the West. I understand this,” she said. “But at the same time, if a woman is dressed inappropriately, words from people on the street, and stares, are not something she should get angry at,” Subedi added.
It is these perceptions that events such as “Walk for Respect,” which take the Toronto started SlutWalk to a new, local level to combat sexual violence.
For the young women who find daily life a struggle, cat calls, violence and regular harassment, awareness is key to creating a new Nepal society that respects the rights of women and their ability to move in public freely and without fear.
“This is the key, pushing people to think twice about how they treat women. We have a problem about sex workers and men often think they have the power, but we can change this through more awareness and pushing our politicians to make laws that protect us,” Rana added.
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