Story by: Inter Press Service

NEW YORK: “I come from Baglung District, a part of Dhawalagiri Zone in Nepal. My house overlooks the river. Do you know, our district is known for the suspension bridges?” her eyes glimmer for a fraction of a second and then she breathes a heavy sigh. Her right hand is still wrapped in a scarf, while with the other she pats her 17-month-old. “If I ever get a chance I will take you to my village, we have a lot of medicinal plants.” She pauses while tears roll down as she continues our Facetime session. “I was 16 when I had my first child and I was 17 when my arm was broken by my mother-in-law.”

These are the words of Balaphuspika Gopal. She is an intimate partner abuse survivor from Nepal, currently living in a women’s shelter in New York City. She migrated to the United States two years ago with her husband and five children and is waiting for naturalization. She came to the shelter 26 days ago after being released from a hospital in Queens, New York, recovering from a fractured rib, three broken fingers and is now under complete social isolation due to the emergency declared for the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19).

Nepal is one of the South Asian countries with high levels of violence against women where about 32.4 percent of women have experienced intimate partner violence (IPV). An alarming number of women reported emotional, physical and sexual abuse and violence from their male partners. Nepali women are generally not recognized as productive economic citizens and women’s access to education and employment opportunities is limited. Consequently, women in Nepal tend to be socioeconomically marginalized and ultimately disempowered in part due to the patriarchal norms which place less value in the education of daughters compared to sons, and limit daughters’ destinies only to marriage.

The United Nations Development Program has reported a 23.8 percent poverty rate and agriculture provided 33 percent of the gross domestic product. Women earned 57 percent less income than men. They have limited access to productive assets such as land and property, credit and modern avenues of knowledge and information.

Balaphuspika, explains to me that marriage represents a monumental shift for the women living in the Baglung district of Nepal. It is customary for women to move out of the familial home to live with their husbands and extended family as a multi-unit, where they become responsible for the house, children and farm work. She and her daughters were subjected to constant threats, insults and violence from her spouse and in-laws.

One in three women is impacted by this violence; 15 million adolescent girls worldwide have experienced forced sex and Balaphushpika’s oldest daughter was forced to marry at the age of 15 and is now divorced. She faced abuse and was raped by a drunk family member. In Nepal, most of the complaints involved dowry-related violence, polygamy, physical domestic violence against women, trafficking, rape, and attempted rape. There were 125 murders of women in the past three years, mostly by drunk husbands or in-laws. It is estimated that of the 87,000 women who were intentionally killed in 2017 globally, more than half (50,000 or 58 percent) were killed by intimate partners or family members, meaning that 137 women across the world are killed by a member of their own family every day. More than a third (30,000) of the women intentionally killed in 2017 were killed by their current or former intimate partner.

Balaphushpika said it was common in many Nepali families to overlook daughters and discriminate on the basis of sex. Girls are given much less opportunity to study or have a profession than boys and even face rationing when it comes to food. She said isolating the menstruating women and regarding them as impure or “dirty” is widely practiced in the country. They were often made to eat dinner in isolation after the entire family has eaten and were forced to sleep on the floor and given very little scope for proper hygiene, especially during menstruation.

As I ask her about her experience and issues facing the Covid-19 lockdown and explain how she and her family should be aware of the risks and measures to take.

She replied with a soft smile: “I am thankful to the heavens that he (her husband) has beaten me before this emergency declaration in the city and I was able to come here. If we stayed with him during social isolation he would have killed me and my children one by one.

“Didi (sister), I have food here and we can sleep. I was beaten like a lifeless object and he always used to start when I was asleep. I have spent countless nights hoping to die because the pain was too much. The day I was put in an ambulance which my daughter called from my neighbor’s phone I was saved.

“I only have $55 on hand and am not a green card holder. To be honest, I feel like a burden living here and getting food without working, but this is the very first time I feel safe in many years. I do not speak any English, but my seven-year-old son does and he translated to the police when they came to see me at the hospital. My husband took away our passports but the police assured us that those can be retrieved. I want to work and restart my life.”

We ended the call on a high note, where she was desperate and yet thankful for having safety, food, access to legal help and a roof over her head during the trying times of Covid-19. Balaphuspika received support along with many other abuse survivors from the Family Justice Centers in New York City who are operating remotely and are in the pipeline to receive financial literacy and seek employment with support from NYC.

IPV is a significant public health issue that affects one in three women globally and a similarly large number of women in Nepal. In June 2017, the government announced its Strategy to Address and Prevent Gender-Based Violence. Nepal opened its first one-stop crisis center in 2011 in its central and far-western regions and continues to place them in hospitals around the country. In 2015, the government developed a protocol to help health providers identify and refer more patients to the crisis centers, which received technical support from Jhpiego and the United Nations Population Fund and is now funded by the government. Although important policy and programmatic steps have been taken to address violence against women in Nepal over the past decade, there is still a gap in IPV research in Nepal, particularly with regard to social norms.

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