Working with Religious Leaders

Combating Intimate Partner Violence in Collaboration with Religious Leaders in Nepal

It is a well-known fact that religion is frequently used as one of the tools to reinforce negative practices against women and girls all over the world and Nepal is no exception. Violation of the rights of women and girls in Nepal emerges from grave inequality between the sexes, which is supported by the patriarchal system that exists in our society and is frequently justified as rooted in the religions that we are practicing.

Although I do not consider myself a ‘religious’ person as such, I do believe in God and I also strongly believe that no religion in the world teaches us to discriminate, humiliate or put another human being in a lower position- under any circumstances. For me, religion is a positive moral code that encourages kindness, humility and love, which is why it made sense to work directly with religious leaders as part of a recently launched media and community mobilization project, Change Starts at Home, which aims to reduce intimate partner violence in Nepali communities.

This approach of seeing religion as a tool to reinforce positive practices is not new to Equal Access. After working to promote gender equality and women’s rights for many years, it has become clear to us as an organisation that combating Violence Against Women (VAW) and Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) requires a multi-sectoral approach, and religious leaders are important stakeholders in this area.  Only by inviting religious leaders into the conversation and working closely with them to raise awareness on what religion actually says about different practices perpetrating violence against women and girls can we truly begin to encourage social change and shift negative norms within communities.

With this in mind we recently organized a workshop with religious leaders as part of our ‘Change Starts At Home’ (Change) project, which is currently launched in three districts of Nepal – Kapilbastu, Chitwan and Nawalparasi, with an aim to reduce intimate partner violence between married couples by changing social norms that perpetuate violence and inequalities between men and women. Most of the participants were leaders from Nepal’s three major religions – Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. Community leaders from other diverse background were also invited, including social workers, teachers, members of local co-operative institutions and other community based organizations.

As the first day opened and the participants filed in, I could feel the heat in the room rising on what was already a sticky June morning in Nawalparasi, Western Nepal.  Myself and the other facilitator were initially a little apprehensive about bringing up the discussion on how religion and various cultural practices are perpetuating violence against women. However, we were very glad to find that our participants were soon open enough to be a part of the discussion and were keen to share their ideas.

A tactic we used to keep the dialogue open was to make it clear from the beginning that the three days we were spending together were not a training in the traditional sense, but more like a discussion forum.  This meant that rather than the facilitator ‘teaching’ or ‘training’ the group, everyone was there to share their views openly and to listen to another person’s perspective without any biases or judgment. This approach helped participants to feel comfortable and willing to actively participate in a constructive discussion, rather than passively sitting through a training.

By the end of three days, everyone was tired from the amount of discussion in the room, but there was also a feeling of exhilaration at what had been covered.  We had managed to bring out various views and opinions on the current situation of women in the communities and what role religion and culture can play in women’s equity and empowerment. I was particularly encouraged to see that there was a common agreement among the participants that religious teachings have been misinterpreted and that they should not be used to justify or ignore violence against women in our communities. All participants unanimously agreed that nothing can justify any form of violence against a human being and that religion can be a powerful tool to uphold this. As one participants stated: “God rejoices where females are respected. We need to make our communities such a place”.

Despite very open dialogues across the three religions and with the other community leaders, there were still some areas we could not discuss as openly as we had liked and where consensus was hard to reach in just three days. For example, issues related to religion’s role in perpetuating beliefs around menstruation and impurity or the role of a son during after-death rituals, which perpetuates the preference of a son over a daughter. However, what I witnessed in that room was a strong commitment from participating leaders to go back to their communities and organize various activities to raise awareness about VAW and IPV. They even worked on their own action plans, including details on the type of activities they will conduct with a tentative timeline.

This seems like a very small step considering the long way we have to go to eliminate VAW and IPV from lives of Nepali women, but after spending three days in this workshop, I am confident that we are on the right path and most importantly we have the much required support and acceptance from the leaders of our communities. Religious beliefs and principles are powerful influences on individual behaviors and community actions, and our religious leaders have the unique advantage of being able to reach both men and women.  I am hopeful that with their support, our target communities are well positioned to identify, validate, and promote best practices on preventing and reducing VAW, slowly changing as an entire community until the social norms that accept, ignore and even promote violence no longer exist.

Change Starts at Home is a media and community outreach project in Nepal, which is funded by UK aid from the UK government, via the What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Global Programme. The funds were managed by the South African Medical Research Council. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.

The author, Binita Shrestha, is the Country Representative for Equal Access in Nepal. The editor, Gemma Ferguson, is the Technical Advisor for Equal Access International

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