Women survivors of gender-based violence in Nepal's refugee camps take action to improve their lives
DAMAK, eastern Nepal, March 7 (UNHCR) - Meena's* life changed forever the day she was raped. She screamed for help, but nobody heard. Meena, who has speech and hearing difficulties, was completely shattered by the incident but did not lose her will to survive. With the support of her family and UNHCR, Meena, who has four children, fought for justice against this brutal act. "I do not want this to happen to other women," she said.
Legal counselling was given to her and the perpetrator was brought to justice, convicted for the crime and given a three year sentence. Supporting survivors of gender-based violence is an important part of UNHCR's work in Nepal. "Legal assistance is made accessible to all survivors of reported sexual and gender-based violence [SGBV] incidents," said Abraham Abraham, UNHCR's representative in Nepal.
The legal assistance is provided either directly by UNHCR protection staff or by lawyers from the Nepal Bar Association (NBA) - Jhapa Unit. It covers many aspects of bringing a case to court including legal counselling, legal representation, filing of the case, and facilitating the appearance of the survivor and witnesses at court hearings.
But UNHCR is also working on ways to prevent gender-based violence occurring in the first place. "UNHCR has focused its preventive activities towards bringing about a change in the attitudes of the refugee population towards women. It understands that promoting respect for women and girls is a key factor in reducing the number of sexual and gender-based violence incidents in the camps, in addition to bringing the perpetrators to justice," said Abraham. And since these measures have been introduced, refugee women say that these camps have become safer places for them to live.
Today, Meena is a successful small-scale entrepreneur stitching clothes for the refugee community. This important change in her life happened after she joined the basic skills development training which is provided for women in the camp where she lives. After enrolling in the advanced tailoring course, she then got financial backing from a micro-credit programme.
Micro-credit programmes are gaining popularity among women in the camps. These programmes enable women to do economic activities which they can manage themselves. The goods they produce are only sold within the camp so the financial gains of such programmes are not large. But they do enable women to become more self-sufficient to the point that they can meet their household needs, as well as boosting their self esteem and dignity.
Lalita*, who is 22 years old and has one child, has also benefited from the micro-credit programme. Like Meena, she too became involved in the scheme after suffering gender-based violence. She was repeatedly beaten by her husband for no apparent reason. "One day, I was severely beaten by my husband and had to be hospitalised," said Lalita. "The day I was released from the hospital, I decided to put an end to this cruelty against me," she added.
Lalita started to live with her parents, giving her husband the chance to apologise for his deeds and offer to take her back. However, this did not work the way she anticipated. Her husband went off with another woman and started to lead a normal life, completely forgetting her and their daughter. Left alone with her daughter and an uncertain future, Lalita had to make some tough decisions to move forward in life. She pursued legal action against her husband, applying for divorce on grounds of polygamy and physical abuse. The court, hearing her plea, reprimanded her husband and granted her a divorce.
Lalita reflected on the steps she took to put her life back together. "During that difficult time of my life, I received support and guidance from UNHCR and joined the skills training classes run by Bhutanese Refugees Aiding Victims of Violence (BRAVVE). After a few months she developed her skills in weaving, bag-making and traditional cloth production.
BRAVVE, which also conducts "women in business" courses for vulnerable refugee women, is one of two Bhutanese refugee organizations providing skills development training and income-generating activity programmes in the camps. It is supported by AUSTCARE and the Lutheran World Foundation. The other, the Bhutanese Refugee Women's Forum (BRWF) is supported by UNHCR.
Lalita found the BRAVVE training very useful. "This has helped me in engaging myself in something productive and has given me the opportunity to earn a little incentive to support in the upkeep of my family," she said looking happy. It has also given Lalita further ambitions. "Now I want to enrol in the 'women in business' course."
* Names have been changed to protect the women's identities
By Nini Gurung