Self-defence training for girls in Kailali (District), read the headline in a Nepali newspaper earlier this week. Similar titles appear in the media every few months, and I wonder: What about the boys and men? Why is it that girls and women, who are the targets of harassment and attacks, must also take on the burden of defending themselves?
The easy answer is: no one else is doing it. That’s not to say that authorities in Nepal are ignoring growing reports of sexual violence and harassment – a hotline set up by the Women’s Commission has reportedly counselled 8,000 survivors of violence since December 2017 – but that there’s little evidence of a collective will to address the patriarchal attitudes prevalent here that can result in the targeting of girls and women. Until that happens, it’s better that women and girls are trained to deal with these incidents.
Some students taking the lead
Small steps are being taken to question social attitudes about men and women. I spoke to the principal of one private school (the schools attended by the minority of middle- and upper-class kids). She noted that the school is delving into the topic more deeply than required by the curriculum, driven in part by the students themselves. For example, pupils chose the high-profile case of the 2018 unsolved rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl as the topic of their mock parliament.
Why is it that girls and women, who are the targets of harassment and attacks, must also take on the burden of defending themselves?
The school is also working with teachers to create gender-responsive classrooms, which includes teachers themselves recognising when they are perpetuating gender stereotypes, like asking boys to always move classroom furniture when girls are capable. Beyond Grade 6, discussions on gender issues include both boys and girls, added the principal, including a recent session about the menstrual cup.
I haven’t found any evidence of discussions in government schools, where a huge majority of children study, about such things as gender roles, respect for the opposite sex and inappropriate touching. (I’d be happy to be proven wrong though.) What that means is that many boys are getting their cues from a society in which men are still largely considered heads of households, where – in some communities – it is considered okay for husbands to physically discipline their wives, and where pornography is widely available to minors via mobile phones and accessed by them without any opinions to counter those skewed depictions of sex and gender.
Booting up girls’ confidence
Girls Kick is one prominent organisation offering self-defence training. Founder Niraj Neupane says physical instruction is only one part of what the organisation offers, with the overall goal being to empower girls and women. (Note to media: I rarely see empowerment mentioned in your reports, which instead dramatically highlight punching and kicking).
Pointing out that more than one-third of harassment happens within families — from threats over dowry to disputes between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law, to sexual advances — Girls Kick works to build the confidence of girls and women so that they are aware of their own strengths and empowered to speak, preventing situations from accelerating out of control. At the same time, they are given the tools to recognise and evade dangerous situations – defending themselves physically only as a last resource.
Neupane says the feedback they’ve received hasn’t been about dramatic escapes from attackers but about how girls are confident to speak up post-training. Examples include calling out men who deliberately brush against them on public transit and the growing numbers of girls attending school during menstruation because they are now willing to speak up about needing a pad.
These are encouraging signs of change in girls; let’s hope we start hearing stories of progress in boys also.