Sexual harassment is an everyday issue for women in Nepal, particularly in urban areas. Although exact numbers are unavailable, activists say the problem is on the rise and are demanding change.
“Harassment is all over Nepal against women and the problem is big. It’s more of a problem where more people live, but it really is everywhere, and it is growing,” said Pratiya Rana, 22, a university student, and a volunteer and participant, in the country’s recent “Walk for Respect” demonstration, the Nepali version of Toronto's SlutWalk, the international protest movement.
Rana was harassed by a gang of local men in a village an hour from the capital, Kathmandu. “They pushed and shoved me and one man grabbed my breasts and asked me for sex,” she told IRIN.
Women dressed in short skirts and leggings carried signs demanding change toward sexual harassment in public spaces and in the workplace.
“The country is in two worlds - young and old - and we young women want change. We demand the government protect the rights of women,” Rana said.
This will prove difficult in Nepal, a male-dominated, patriarchal society of 30 million where there is no real legislation to protect women, gender divisions are traditionally rigid and female empowerment initiatives are limited.
In April, around 500 women and men marched through central Kathmandu to publicize the rights of women. Their goals, published in a statement, were “to sensitize the greater problem among youths as well as other people, [of] teasing and sexual harassment”.
The women talked of verbal harassment, being solicited for sex, groping, pushing, and sexual violence, including rape.
They also called for greater awareness of the few existing laws and policies to protect women, citing the Nepal Public Offences and Penalties Act of 1970, which says that “any activities or action that carries in it a sexual nature both verbally or physically” is harassment. The penalty is a US$120 fine and sometimes jail, but the legislation is rarely enforced.
A new bill, proposed in 2012, which states that perpetrators of sexual harassment in the workplace could face up to three months in jail and a fine of nearly $300, is waiting to be discussed by lawmakers.
Nepal has yet to agree on a new constitution and with a 27 May deadline fast approaching - the 5th to date - many believe it will be some time before the bill on sexual harassment in the workplace is passed.
“I think people will see this [workplace legislation] as minor and it will be pushed back until we have new elections, and who knows when those will be,” said Rana.
Commentators say even with new legislation convictions will prove difficult. Many legislators in the Himalayan nation blame the growing sexual harassment problem 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?” lawmaker Sunil Prajapati asked in response to a question about the bill.
“First, they attract and excite others, and then if comments are passed they call it sexual harassment - it is not fair. The outfits and behaviour the society cannot digest should also be considered punishable,” he argued in a speech in parliament.
Female lawmakers who give credence to the idea that what a woman wears is a matter of debate, makes things worse for women, said Rana.
“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.
Lawmaker Yashoda Subedi noted the importance of greater public awareness and said she believes a middle ground can be achieved in order to create legislation against the perpetrators of sexual harassment.
“We must be aware of what we are wearing, and Nepali society is not the West. I understand this,” Subedi 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.”