In Nepal, women very often play the role of peacebuilders in their families and communities. Yoga Raj Sapkota and Stephanie Theis, peace advisors and consultants for GIZ in Nepal, describe how this role is currently changing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what opportunities for improved social cohesion and peace are opened up by the pandemic.
Due to the pandemic, the family setting changed for many in rural and urban Nepal. Thousands of migrant workers from the capital and from abroad returned home to their families, some of which have been away for many years. The return of a family member can lead to increased tension, due to the new constellation all family members need to accustom to. The duration in which family members get used to living together again, can lead to imbalances in the family system and thus to tensions. This might explain some of the cases of domestic violence, which have increased during the nation-wide lockdown which was enforced on the 23 March 2020 and prolonged for four months.
Further, the unemployment rate increased massively due to the pandemic and therewith the tension due to a lack of financial resources. Furthermore, the lockdown forced people to stay inside, in their often small homes, which assumingly have led to tensions among family members and contributed to the increase in cases of domestic violence.
On the other side, the return of the migrant workers to their homeland and families led to their engagement in agriculture activity due to a refocus on the use of local resources, which increases the food security of the families and the community. Not only does the hometown, and often place of birth, constitute a “safe place” for many during this global crisis, but also holds opportunities beyond the pandemic for the future. More and more citizens do direct their efforts into local development and sustaining their families by using and building on local resources. Culturally, life in the place where one is born and raised has a greater meaning for many also beyond the crisis, as the local customs, the local language, festivals, and much more are very specific and unique to its place and population. The return of the migrant workers and the development of local economies, based on the skills they gained abroad or in bigger cities within the nation, therefore states a great opportunity.
The localization of development has an impact on local peace structures. Families can grow stronger, healthier and more resilient if their lives are built on local resources and their capacities as a family are utilized. The reunion can strengthen the relationships among all members and can lead to improved living conditions socially and economically. Further, the community can grow stronger, while young and old men and women are working together to build their community and their lives. This cooperation can foster relationships and moreover lead to peace in communities.
For local peacebuilders and actors within the local peace structure (national and international), the crisis provided a lesson to localize structures, services and solutions. Another lesson is that community ownership is vital, not only during a crisis but at any given time. The needs of the community need to be prioritized in order to address those in an effective manner. If we can support to transform a person, the person then him/herself will change the policy. If we focus on changing the policy the person might not be ready to follow the changed policy. In light of the global crisis, which will lead to many global challenges in the coming months, a window of opportunities is opening. The focus on globalization is now being transformed to localization, the focus on access to the global market is now replaced by focusing on sustaining and developing the local market. We, as peacebuilders shall support families, women and the transformation of communities to stronger actors for peace and utilize localized development as a tool for peace.
Looking at the various roles women play, women can be considered as peacebuilders in families and their communities. Especially in a society such as Nepal where the family is often prioritized over one's individual life, women are playing a vital role in contributing to a peaceful togetherness.
Women often secure and foster harmony, which increases family cohesion which has a positive impact on the community. The effort women make to care for various generations’ needs and to support the strengthening of the relations within a household is enormous, acknowledging that families in Nepal are in the majority of cases joint families which can place an additional burden on all members. The life of grandparents, parents and children is taking place under one roof, which can be an advantage, creating a healthy family bounding which can be seen as a great resource for one’s own life. The transfer of cultural practices, religion and knowledge from grandparents to their grandchildren strengthens identity which is regarded as important for a resilient society. The transfer of cultural-, religious practices and knowledge are often facilitated by the wife/daughter in law/mother. In facilitating all family relations, the wife, mother and daughter in law, has the leading role, except when it comes to decision making. Due to prevalent male-dominated social norms, decisions are mainly taken by the husband and father in law, which often does not reflect the need of the whole family. The misuse of such power based on inequality can be reflected in the number of cases of violence including violence based on hierarchical structures, gender-based violence (GBV), sexual violence, and psychological violence within families which are increasing all over Nepal.
The Coronavirus situation report by COCAP (February-April 2020) states that “before the lockdown, GBV witnessed the highest number of violent incidents with 82 cases recorded of which 30 lead to death, including those of sexual assault and domestic violence.” This data reflects the cases of one month (February-March 2020). One can assume that due to the lockdown, victims of violence are not able to seek help and report, which explains the lower number of cases with 62, of which 27 led to death during one month of lockdown.
UN Women Nepal published an advocacy paper including emerging gender impacts of Covid-19, which states that “Experiences have demonstrated that where women are primarily responsible for procuring and cooking food for the family, increasing food insecurity as a result of crises may place them at heightened risk, for example, of intimate partner and other forms of domestic violence due to heightened tensions in the household. Other forms of GBV are also exacerbated in crisis contexts.“ It is widely known that poverty can lead to violence in families, as pressure and stress increases.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) can play an important role to advocate for the protection and empowerment of women and to empower family members in order to bring a change in families and the wider society. The experience of Human Rights Forum Nepal (HURF) working in Ilam since 1998, supported by the Civil Peace Service Program of GIZ since 10 years, shows that a family-centered approach to ensure families free of violence should include among others an open and clear communication among family members and shared decision-making power. The family-centered approach is aimed to bring positive change in families including a respectful, trustful and loving environment, which has a positive effect on all the family members, and in a wider perspective on society as a whole. This approach argues that structural change is only to take place when citizens grow up and live in a safe and respectful environment free of violence.
CSOs can support families by discussing gender roles within families and challenging the status quo, talk about equality related to participation in society, in decision making, in shared responsibilities regarding household tasks, childcare and task division related to childcare among parents, and guide discussions within communities about equal pay for equal work, and proper reintegration of migrants.
HURF implements a safe migration program, a child protection program and the strengthening of local peace structures program working with men and women alike. These programs intersect in many ways, contributing in various ways to a positive change in families. Discussions and guidance about the productive use of time and money contribute to an increased understanding among family members and highlight the advantages of a well-functioning family from an economic point of view. Women leadership programs can empower women to advocate for their rights and make their voices heard, whereas training programs targeting men can increase their capacity to communicate with respect and increase their capacity to solve issues non-violently.
Another important issue to be covered to bring positive change within families, is that of sex education, which is a taboo in most Nepalese families. Sex education can lower the risk for children of sexual abuse and rape which is taking place mainly within families by relatives. It can lower the risk for minors to get unwillingly pregnant, lowers the risk for infectious diseases, empowers youngsters to take informed decisions, and make informed choices. CSOs together with schools and daycare centers can shed light on the importance of good parenthood, building trustful, reliable, and strong family relations, including the aspect of psycho-social well-being of children and the other family members. Love, support and cooperation are values to strengthen in order to ensure the non-occurrence of violence within families by enabling all family members to find non-violent ways of dealing with challenges and to find solutions.
Especially in Nepal, the localization of services such as justice, basic health, education, market access should be further improved in order to strengthen community ties and increase opportunities. For the improvement of localization of services, it is important that local governments, peacebuilders, CSOs, and citizens take collective decisions based on collective needs assessment. The implementation and share of benefits should be gender-sensitive and inclusive and benefit the community as a whole.
Due to the crisis, the issue of returning migrant workers and their social re-integration is now becoming crucial. More needs to be done in the area of business for peace (B4P) to engage in public-private dialogue to establish local priorities. Here, local governments and CSOs need to consider the social re-integration of migrants into their communities and families, and the utilization of their skills which they gained abroad in order to generate employment opportunities as well as to forster modernization in farming, the use and innovation of new technology to uplift the community.
Much more can be done for a peaceful, sustainable living within the local communities built by the communities.