Context and findings: COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown increased Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) towards women and girls, says a study conducted by IM Swedish Development Partner (IM) in December 2020.
According to UNICEF, globally, Nepal has one of the highest rates of child marriage: more than one third women ages 20 to 24 years were first married by age 18. About half of the total women experienced at least one time violence in their life, third of them have experienced sexual violence, whereas more than 60 % affected women haven’t told anyone about their violence.
Lockdown caused confinement of men also at home without reasonable income which has led to increased conflicts in families. The IM’s study revealed that women have been beaten by their husbands, and verbally abused by their relatives. The unpaid care work has increased by 3 to 4 hours during the lockdown period. Earlier study has shown that globally more than 76 per cent of total unpaid care work is performed by women and girls. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), women perform unpaid care work four times more than men.
Restricted movement, closure of schools for extended period and poverty have contributed increased child marriage during lockdown in the rural part of Nepal. The study found 41 cases of child marriage in lockdown which is more than normal time in the studied eight municipalities of Dang and Kapilvastu district. The evidence emerged that the child marriage can lead to SGBV as well as it can become a factor for polygamy among men.
Ineffective implementation of policies: Despite good provisions for preventing and controlling SGBV (e.g. Domestic Violence Act, Criminal Code Act, Guidelines, etc.), the federal level policies and programmes appear to be less effective during crisis or lockdown because they are not easily accessible. Although there is provision of handling SGBV by the Judicial Committees at the local levels, they only use the reconciliation method, but the critical SGBV cases need legal solutions.
The federal level policies, except the national strategy (2016) and criminal code (2017), are implicit about child marriage and they treat it as any other evil social practices, and programmes are more like during normal situation. Therefore, there appears to be no new initiative in the pipeline for laws strengthening and their enforcement. Consequently, they are being undermined under the cover of customary practices or religious beliefs in general, and lockdown appears to have given a favorable condition for such practices to flourish.
There is a need for alignment of the policies with the government of different levels. With the authority of Local Government Operation Act (LGOA), the local government should immediately develop policy, strategy and acts related to SGBV and child marriage as soon as possible utilizing the learnings from the pandemic and lock down in 2020.
The local government should also establish a comprehensive mechanism for free and fast legal services to the victim or survivor of SGBV or needy people, complaints collection and hearing, rapid response to cases of SGBV and protection of victims. The Judicial Committee should be strengthened by endowing enough legal authority and power to give professional judgement to deliver justice to SGBV victims. Targeted economic empowerment activities for survivors of SGBV should be developed and implemented by the local government.
A separate set of policies and legislations should be developed at all levels that clearly prohibit customary child marriage practices and made them legally punishable. This should also be blended with massive awareness campaigns as well as integration of this topic into the school level education system. Religious leaders, priests and community leaders should be sensitized and mobilized. At all levels, mechanisms should be established targeting adolescent children (boys and girls) to self-educate or educate peers about marriage and society so that they do not fall in trap because of ignorance.
One of the serious concerns is that child marriage cases remain either unreported or under-reported as people are risk aversive, and some argue it is the right of people not to disclose. But, as criminal code has recognized child marriage as punishable act, Local Government should keep record of cases, actions taken and take bold actions to discourage child marriage.
The local government can work together with Civil Societies Organizations (CSOs) who are working in the similar field. Society for Education and Environment Development (SEED), and Justice and Rights Institute (JuRI) has already started working with the local government of Dang and Kapilvastu to develop the strategy to reduce child marriage.
(The author is a Program Manager at IM Swedish Development Partner Nepal)