By Dr Vikki Turbine, Co-Convenor of the Equality & Diversity Cluster of the Glasgow Human Rights Network and Lecturer in Politics, School of Political & Social Sciences
International Women’s Day took place on the 8th March 2017 and ran with the campaign #BeBoldforChange. On the 13th March, the Glasgow Human Rights Network and the Gender & Sexualities Forum of the University of Glasgow were delighted to welcome women’s rights activist, Sharmila Thapa of Samida Women’s Development Forum to Glasgow – an activist embodying boldness and transformation. Sharmila’s talk gave us an important insight into the personal, political, and professional work of women’s rights activism in Nepal. Sharmila’s talk provided the opportunity to continue conversation and activism around women’s human rights beyond the focus of International Women’s Day into an everyday and transnational dialogue.
Personal testimony of intimate violences
Sharmila began her talk by telling her own story as a young single mother and rights activist in Nepal. Her activism is grounded in her personal experiences, which illustrate why and how she became an activist and advocate for other women. She spoke of the multiple and intersecting discriminations that women face in Nepal. As a young woman, Sharmila choose a love marriage – a deeply transgressive decision in a context where arranged marriages are the accepted norm. When her marriage broke down as a result of violence, Sharmila spoke of how women in her position face shaming as a result of the breakdown of a marriage, and doubly so when this is the breakdown of a love marriage. Sharmila also became a single mother at this point. Sharmila explained the challenges of attempting to leave a violent home as a single mother in Nepal. She told us of how it is very difficult to rent accommodation, and to gain employment because of societal stigma. It is also extremely difficult to support a child – from not being able to pay for school fees, to navigating the fundamental basic rights of citizenship. Until recently, there has been no provision for the maternal transfer of citizenship, which has left many without basic rights.
When attempts to seek legal redress for support for her son failed, Sharmila had to turn to her family for support. Although her marriage ended because of domestic violence, Sharmila explained that she was subjected to further violence – in the form of interfamilial violences- rooted in the shaming and stigmatisation of unmarried women and mothers. Sharmila explained how an “internalised misogyny of the deeply patriarchal society” results in domestic violence being perpetrated by other women in some cases, and creates multiple intimate marginalisations in the home based on the stigma associated with women’s bodies. See also here for further discussion of grassroots women’s activism across Nepal attempting to fight against the effects of stigma.
Politicisation in the face of marginalisation
While Sharmila demonstrated the severe marginalisation of women, particularly of single mothers, in Nepal, Sharmila also spoke about her inspirational work to engage the law and work to assist other women in similar positions. Sharmila was awarded a United Nations N-Peace Award for her work campaigning for the rights of single mothers and survivors of domestic violence in Nepal in 2015. The N-Peace Award is awarded to women working in the fight for peace and cohesion in Asia and it recognises Sharmila’s work in the development of Samida Women’s Development Forum (SWDF). Daily, Sharmila and SWDF work with women, with government, and with transnational agencies to campaign for change in relation to the protection of women’s rights in Nepal.
You can listen to Sharmila talk about her award-winning work in this video:
Questions and ongoing dialogue
Sharmila’s talk was followed by a Q&A session with the participants attending the talk. The audience was comprised of students from undergraduate to postgraduate research levels and academic staff from Sociology, Politics, and medicine, as well a member of the public. Everyone attending had an interest in finding out more about women’s rights, citizenship and the current political situation in Nepal. The question and answer session raised important discussions around women’s rights – in terms of autonomy and of citizenship. Sharmila explained that while there have been inroads made at a national governmental level with changes to the Constitution and engagement with the UN Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), in practice, the implementation of legal provisions is not always followed through due to the persistence of cultural and institutional norms. This is further compounded by the complexities of post-conflict and post-disaster management underway in Nepal. Kumud Rana, a Sociology PhD student at the University of Glasgow, has written a more in-depth discussion of the particular gendered politics at play in contemporary Nepal.
At the close of the discussion, the importance of witnessing and hearing the experiences of women from multiple positionalities was reinforced. It is crucial that we continue to highlight, hear, and act against ongoing gender-based violences. We are in a global context where an advance of state-sanctioned misogyny is evident. From the Trump Presidency undermining women’s reproductive autonomy globally at the stroke of a pen, to President Putin signing a Bill to partially ‘decriminalise’ ‘non-serious’ instances of physical domestic violence in Russia. As I write this article sitting in Scotland, the media continues to report on cases from across the UK that again highlight that even in ‘advanced western democracies’, there exist fundamental misunderstandings of the multiplicity of forms and effects domestic and intimate violences. Moreover, the ways in which law enforcement agencies, governments, and societies react to women seeking redress from intimate violences again starkly illustrates how much work there is to be done to tackle the cultural and historical legacies that limit many women’s individual autonomy, citizenship, and freedom on a daily basis.
This disregard for women’s rights in democracies and autocracies alike represents a crisis point in the fight against endemic and worsening levels of domestic and gendered violence against women. At the same time, we have seen new forms of feminist resistance across the globe. We must continue to make space for the visibility and vocalisation of transnational dialogues – particularly of those most marginalised – beyond one day per year. We can learn a lot from each other in how to fight gendered violence in the face of adversity.
Thank you to Sharmila Thapa for her time and insights; to Kumud Rana, Sociology Doctoral Researcher at the University of Glasgow for initiating the event and interpreting on the day; to the Glasgow Human Rights Network for funding Sharmila’s travel costs; and to the University of Glasgow Gender & Sexualities Forum for co-hosting.