KATHMANDU: The recent attack on 22 year old Pavitra Karki has yet again stoked the discourse on acid attacks and gender based violence in Nepal. Pavitra is one of the many young women in Nepal who were targeted by young males, a tragic but more and more common occurrence in the country and elsewhere in South Asia.

Within the last 6 years, there have been at least 4 incidents of acid attacks every year and a total of 20 reported incidents from 2014 to 2020 in Nepal.

It is not surprising that the majority of these victims are women with rare instances of males being victims too.

The recently imposed lockdowns have further proved how such violence against women are part of the normal.

While the motives behind most acid attacks are rejection, unrequited love, and ending of romantic relationships by females, the recurring theme from the incidents point to a larger problem of toxic masculinity, patriarchy, and misogyny that is embedded within our social culture where men feel the need to ‘react’ when they are denied the things they want by women.

The inability to handle and cope with rejection and the troublesome need for retribution points to the fragile male ego that has been condoned for so long and goes unchecked in our society.

Our social norms tolerate and perpetuate patriarchal values where the sense of ‘male privilege’ and ‘male entitlement’ bears a strong foothold in our daily interactions, whereas women have no agency in the matters of love, sex, relationship, marriage, and money among other things.

The message is clear that any form of transgression within the existing gendered norms and power dynamic is not welcome and if challenged, the consequences for women can be lethal.

The ongoing gender dynamics should be understood within the broader and intersecting patterns of oppression and marginalization recurrent in the country.

Just as with the case of caste and race discrimination where we cannot achieve equality unless those in the upper castes understand that the problem as well as a big part of the solution lies within them, it is important for our men and young boys to awaken that gender issues and violence is their issue too and they are a part of the solution.

What is needed is male reckoning, an allyship where men are not passive bystanders to gender norms, discrimination, and violence but partners who actively participate in daily discourse against all forms of social injustice including gender inequality.

Some positive developments are happening.

A new Criminal Code Act entered into effect in August 2018 which criminalizes acid attacks with perpetrators facing up to eight years jail time and a fine.

While human rights activists and organizations are lobbying to formulate a specific legislation against acid and burns related violence, debates on regulating the access, supply, and control of toxic acidic chemicals are ongoing.

No matter how stringent the rules and regulations are, they alone are not the solution and cannot curb gender based violence.

A cultural shift in the way we think about and do gender needs to happen at a structural level.

It is granted that education should play an important role in changing young males’ perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors but families, schools, teachers and the entire learning process are deeply entrenched in the same beliefs that allow the popular culture to breed gender discrimination and violence.

Forward, progressive thinking and a different, more open perception towards sexuality does not happen overnight.

Activism with grassroots campaigning can also play an important role but we need to think in a more structural and systemic way at solving gender violence for good.

In the short run, bodies like Nepal Women Commission should be strengthened in its role as an advocate and protector of women’s rights.

A better referral system for victims of gender violence is needed as advocated by the World Bank that is already supporting a national helpline.

Acid attacks victims should be encouraged to attain a dignified and productive role in the society even through scholarships and job reservations where the government of Nepal assumes an active role in the rehabilitation process.

On the one hand, efforts must continue in supporting young women to think and act as if only the sky were the limit to their prowess and ambition.

Leadership training, volunteering opportunities are all tools for young women’s self-empowerment equipping them with tools to defy gender norms which are stacked against them.

Now mostly available to girls from middle and upper class families, such programs should be extended and scaled up in order to reach the most vulnerable girls and young women in the most conservative regions.

On the other hand, we have the challenge of finding effective ways to include boys and young male adults in rethinking women’s role in society.

Engaging boys and young males in understanding and fully accepting their female counterparts as equal partners will require a multi-dimensional effort that should start from an education sector emboldened and mandated to re-imagine a society where women have freedoms and lead.

A new generation of educators could make the difference if be equipped to shape the classroom as a space for a new narrative on gender dynamics and power relations.

More meaningful extracurricular activities and volunteering, including mentoring and peer to peer opportunities in partnership with local youth groups could offer pathways to self-growth for both sexes.

Such partnerships would help generate new attitudes and behaviors that will lay the ground for a more just and equitable society where women can thrive.

Ending acid attacks against women and overall stopping the perpetration of violence and abuse towards them will require a mix of short and long term actions by multiple actors working together.

It is in the society’s interest to find ways to muster the necessary willpower and ingenuity to change the status quo, allowing women to develop their potential, gaining the freedom to make decisions on their own without risking their lives.

Sanju G.C. is graduate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Oregon State University, USA and Simone Galimberti is Co-Founder of ENGAGE

Cover Photograph: Acid burn victim Ponleu with wedding photo. Credit: UN Women/ Phil Borges

Inter Press Service