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A hotel, particularly one that is located on a highway, is traditionally a place where women in Nepal are considered to be unsafe. Their home, on the other hand, is meant to be a safe haven where women are protected…And yet a group of radio producers in Nepal have chosen a hotel on a highway as the setting for a new Nepali radio program, which is taking the unprecedented step of reaching out directly to married men and women in their homes to talk about violence free relationships.

This half hour radio drama and discussion program launched by Equal Access International in Nepal is the key component of the multi-faceted ‘Change Starts at Home’ project, part of the DFID What Works portfolio, supported through South African Medical Research Council.

The hotel  where the drama is set is run by Manarupa and Surya Singh, a married couple who work hard to have a balanced and happy marriage.  Through their interactions with each other and the stories of those who visit the hotel, Manarupa and Surya welcome listeners into their lives where they share the daily struggles and triumphs of maintaining a harmonious, peaceful and happy family life.   The program is aptly named ‘Samajhdari‘ meaning ‘mutual understanding’ in Nepali and is targeted at married couples with the aim of reducing intimate partner violence (IPV) and encouraging more happy and healthy relationships between wives and husbands.

As in many parts of the world, gender based violence (GBV) and IPV in Nepal is deeply rooted in social norms, values and cultural practices that set the unequal power relations between husband and wife. From the first day of the marriage, a woman is taught that she needs to bow to everyone in her husband’s family and cater to their needs above her own to be acknowledged as a good daughter-in-law.  Taught from childhood that her primary role is to uphold the family reputation (both her own and the family of her husband) women are frequently rewarded as a virtuous wife and daughter for keeping silent about abuse. This lays the foundation for unequal relationships and ultimately contributes to violence against women, including intimate partner violence, and the silence that surrounds it.  Violence between married couples is viewed as a private matter in Nepal and IPV particularly is something that no Nepali women should admit or disclose as it is directly linked to the prestige of her family.  The teaching that has been given to her since day one is so deep rooted that it shapes her overall personality and thought process. In many instances, she actually believes her husband hits her because he cares and because she must have done something that deserved the punishment.

The preliminary results of the baseline study conducted as part of the project in March 2016 certainly reinforces this, highlighting that 49% of women agreed that if a woman discusses her domestic problems with others, she brings shame upon her family. According to Dr Cari Clark, PI of the Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) being done to assess the project impact, the preliminary analysis of the baseline data shows the 12-month IPV rate among the study respondents to be double that of the most recent DHS survey, which clearly shows the high prevalence of IPV in the project’s target communities.

But can a highway hotel really help bring about change in people’s relationships? Anu Upadhayay, who is leading the production for the Samajhdari radio programs thinks it can, “rather than discussing who is right, what is wrong and how men need to correct their behavior, as many GBV programming does, Samajhdari uses drama and discussion to encourage people to understand and address the beliefs and norms that underpin negative behaviors and contribute to occurrences of IPV against women in Nepal. Through Manarupa and Surya Singh, the radio program highlights issues like power dynamics, sexual consent and gender identities & roles; showing the relationship between violence and the cultural norms, roles, codes, and ideals of masculinity“.

Pawan Neupane, production member of Samajhdari radio program believes that this program is as much for male audiences, “It’s not just women, often men are also victims of patriarchy. Existing gendered stereotypes prevent men from openly showing their emotions, which they are expected to hide no matter what. Lack of other outlets push men into channeling a wide range of emotional responses into anger which ultimately leads to GBV and IPV. This also prevents men from being truly loving towards their wife and other family members. So at the end, its men who are also losing from such behaviors”.

Whilst the Samajhdari radio program is the central component, the overall project goes beyond radio waves, combining media with direct community mobilization in the three targeted districts- Chitwan, Nawalparasi and Kapilbastu. The combination of innovative and interactive radio programming and weekly listening and discussion sessions aims to support the couples through a process of change that goes beyond gaining knowledge to actually putting what they learn in to practice in their own relationships. The project also includes family members and community / religious leaders so that they can also support the change the couple is going through, while developing knowledge and skills themselves to deal more effectively with family conflict using non-violent methods.

By openly discussing the issues that perpetuate IPV on the radio and in the group sessions, the project is challenging the acceptability of violence and instead promoting balanced relationships between men and women that are based on respect, love and support.  As a couple who are involved in our weekly listener group explained: We didn’t have the habit of talking to each other previously but these days we find time to talk to each other about almost everything….the radio program has been a huge part in the changes that has happened in our lives..We have gathered inspirations from the characters. We aspire to be an example just like Surya Singh and Manurupa and and we learn from the mistakes of Padam Dai and Shiva to not repeat it in our lives.   With Manarupa and Surya Singh showing the way, Equal Access believes that the highway hotel will continue to inspire men and women across Nepal to build relationships which are based on true companionship and mutual understanding.


 

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By Binu Subedi

About a month ago, Khemraj Dallakoti from Bhandara VDC in Chitwan, Nepal went on a trip with his family. They paused their journey for a while at Daunne, a small settlement on the edge of the highway, to look for a place to rest and eat. But despite their fluttering stomachs, they proceeded to wander excitedly around, trying to find the Manurupa Hotel among the rows of hotels that skirted the highway.  They scanned each and every one of them, only to be disappointed that Manarupa’s was nowhere to be found. Not wanting to give up on their quest, they asked the owners of the hotels and shops surrounding the area if they knew where the hotel was to no avail.  In the end, all their efforts to search for the hotel owned by their beloved and cherished Manurupa and her husband, were futile. At last they gave up and settled for one of the nearby hotels to eat, their stomachs content, but not their hearts. Where was Manarupa’s famous hotel?

Manurupa is a character in the radio program ‘Samajhdari‘ (or Mutual Understanding) produced by Equal Access. The program, broadcast from 5 local radio stations across 3 districts (Chitwan, Kapilvastu and Nawalparasi) of Nepal, aims to encourage strong, healthy and smooth relationships between husbands and wives by focusing on ways to resolve issues, conflicts and misunderstanding that may arise between couples. Manurupa is one of the leading characters who, along with her husband Surya Singh, runs the Manarupa Hotel that is said to be situated on the east-west highway of Nepal at Daunne. While we remain unsure of exactly how many people have stopped in Daunne hoping to meet Manarupa and taste Surya Singh’s renowned cooking, we are certain that since being on air, the drama has captured the imagination and the hearts of many who have built such a strong picture of the characters in their heads, certain they are real.

As a writer and producer on the drama, as well as being the voice of Manarupa, I feel particularly touched by people’s belief in the characters that we have created. Recently, I visited Bhandara VDC in Chitwan, where I met Khemraj who told me the story of his search for the Manarupa Hotel. I was intrigued and wanted to get more feedback from the listeners of the radio program as well as witness firsthand the impact the drama is making in people’s lives. So I met with one of our 72 listener groups, who meet every week to listen to the program and discuss the issues raised.  When I first started to talk I could feel an air of excitement in the room as they recognised my voice as that of Manarupa. But when I told them my actual name and what I do for living, my utterly interested listeners (until now) lost all their enthusiasm and weren’t impressed at all! I could sense feelings of apprehension among the group members, so I tried to make them feel at ease and as we talked, I began to feel the warmth of their affection towards Manarupa and the show. Slowly they started opening up, expressing their trust and belief in Manarupa. As we talked, I admit that for a moment I forgot Manarupa was a character we had created in our studios in Kathmandu, instead I was seeing only their ‘Manarupa-didi’. It was as if Manurupa wasn’t a part of fiction anymore, but was a real person, a strong, intelligent, caring woman who could offer support in conflicts and advice for couples struggling to understand each other.

All their questions and feelings, which had been tucked away in the deepest corners of their heart, started surfacing. Many shared the problems they faced with their spouses, in-laws and children and asked Manurupa for advice. It seemed so natural for them to talk in this way as that is exactly what Manurupa does in the radio program – she advocates for harmony between couples, she talks about ways of building intimacy between a husband and wife. At times the lines between reality and fiction blurred as they wanted to know who runs the hotel while I am away, who I left my daughter with and how is my husband Surya doing?

They continued “We used to have many issues between us as husband and wife and we were able to resolve it by listening to the program.” Others asked “now we are facing this predicament. What should we do? How can we resolve this issue, Manurupa?” At times I felt overwhelmed, how could I respond like an expert? I am, after all, just a producer and a character of the program. I was in awe of the trust and belief our listeners placed in me and the characters in the drama. I tried my best to comfort them and share my experiences and knowledge but always reminding them that: “I am just a character, I write the script … I do not own a hotel in Daunne.” While I was conveying this fact, I quickly glanced over to Khemraj and his wife and smiled, only to have them burst into laughter as they remembered their own search for the mythical Manaurpa Hotel.

As I left the group and headed back to Kathmandu, many thoughts began running through my mind about what I had just experienced.  Before we launched this program, we were aware that there have been hundreds of radio programs providing information and promoting awareness about various issues to the remote and marginalized communities of Nepal. They all provide information, but it is harder to change attitudes and behaviors. For us to tackle an issue like interpersonal violence it was essential that we got to those deep-seated beliefs that justify and perpetuate inequality and violence. We knew we had a challenge ahead of us, so when we wrote the drama, we didn’t think about changing the country, we didn’t even focus on changing a community or a family – we were utterly focused on reaching the individual and changing the relationship between a husband and wife.  We had been afraid before we started to air the program that the content would be too personal, too close to home but in that small room, surrounded by listeners, I heard over and over how they had changed their attitudes, behavior, and beliefs after listening to the program. Many shared their joy with me and many told me that they found their long lost happiness with their spouses and in their homes. Of course when you change yourself, then there is another dimension added to your relationship that benefits the whole family and when families prosper, the whole community flourishes. When you look at it this way – then this becomes the right way to change, starting at home and slowly moving out to family, friends, neighbors and the community. Maybe these are the reasons why Manurupa has resonated with so many listeners  – by speaking directly to us and to the matters important to all our hearts.

About the Author: Binu Subedi works for Equal Access in Nepal.  She is a producer and scriptwriter for the Samajhdari radio program, she is also the voice of Manarupa in the drama.


 

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Learn more about our project team, facilitators, religious leaders and couples involved in the Change Starts at Home project to find out what changes they have noticed since taking part in the project.