“Mutual Understanding” Makes All the Difference for Nepali Women

Can open discussion on women’s rights change an abusive husband’s behavior? Apparently, it can.

Equal Access, supported by a three-year grant from the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women, launched a radio program in 2006 to open public discourse to previously forbidden issues like marital rape and strategies for preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. The program is called Samajhdari, which is Nepali for “mutual understanding.” The weekly broadcasts, reaching approximately a million listeners, begin with a real woman’s dilemma. She is recorded explaining her problem by community reporters, scattered throughout Nepal. Her story is broadcast, and then discussed by groups of community listeners gathered by Equal Access, many of whom have similar dilemmas. “The idea is not to give answers,” explains ­­­­­­Jaya Luintel, the program coordinator, “but to open up an issue for discussion, and inform the audience what their rights are.”

The discussion is long overdue. Women in Nepal are victimized by a systematic marginalization that leaves many of them illiterate, uninformed about options for family planning and HIV prevention, and completely at the mercy of their husbands or other male family members. Wives face marital rape from husbands who believe that they have the right to sex whether or not their wives consent; HIV from husbands who travel for years at a time for business, and are clients of sex workers; and the constant threat of violence should they challenge their husbands or try to protect themselves. Until now, they have suffered in silence in a society where discussion of sex is taboo. The coordinators at Equal Access hope that getting the discussion into the open will help men realize the impact of their actions and change accordingly.

Fortunately, Samajhdari is working. One woman explained that after she and her husband listened together to an episode dealing with marital rape, he started to behave differently. “[H]e realizes that what he did in the past was violence against me,” she says. A male listener comments that “I have realized how very violent I was, and now I regret what I have done. Nowadays, I ask other men to listen to Samajhdari, in the hopes that I can clean my sin.”

In an effort to encourage positive male role models, Equal Access also launched the Most Understanding Husband Campaign. Men were asked to nominate themselves for the award, writing letters detailing how they behaved as understanding husbands. The campaign selected ten finalists and featured their stories on the radio program. Highlighted choices included involving the wife in family planning decisions; encouraging her further education; defying the social convention demanding that a woman eat only after her husband has finished; and other behaviors that demonstrate cooperation, equality and, above all, mutual respect in the marriage.