PICS: TONG SIAN CHOO
When Gauridevi Sharma was 14, a close friend confided that her father had raped her. Another friend then told her that a classmate was making unwanted physical advances.
Sexual abuse by close relatives and friends is common among teenage girls in Nepal, child welfare activists say, but it is shrouded in secrecy because of taboos. Victimised girls often keep their ordeals to themselves, and families almost never go to the police.
Sharma was so moved by what she heard in school, she led a group called Team Organising Local Institute (TOLI) in her former secondary school which used peer counselling to help mainly female victims of abuse.
"In Nepal, girls and boys are not equal," Sharma explains, "girls don't even want to seek help from counselors after something has happened because they think their families will find out."
To reach out to a larger public, TOLI started working two years ago with a Pokhara radio station, Radio Taranga, to address sexual harassment and abuse problems in Nepal with a program called 'Manko Awaj' (My Mind's Voice). It aims to raise awareness of sexual abuse among young women between 14-18 in their schools, neighbourhoods and homes.
Radio Taranga's Himnidhi Laudari says students from this age group have been found to be "very prone to sexual harassment". Over the past two years, more than 100 students from 58 secondary schools in Kaski and Tanahun district, including boys and girls, have been interviewed to share their views and experiences. In addition, parents, teachers and child welfare activists are also invited to the studio to discuss how talking about the problem openly may help curb abuse.
The former coordinator of TOLI's 'Safe Environment for Girls' program, Dudh Kashi Gurung, has been handling up to 30 child sexual abuse cases each year since 2009.
"Nepal is a patriarchal society, some teachers sexually harass their students," she explained, "but it is very difficult for the victims to talk about it." Gurung noticed that in cases of rape, parents did not even lodge a complaint with the police. "They are afraid word will get out, society will stigmatise their daughters, and it would be difficult to marry them off," she added.
The lack of awareness about sexual matters among young adults complicates this problem further. "It is seen as acceptable for boys to tease girls," Laudari says, "and the only way that can be changed is by spreading the message that it is not normal, and it is an offence."
Manko Awaj is a radio package that includes drama, songs, and poems written by students and has a lively format that makes it popular among young listeners. The show also informs girls where they can seek help and support.
Manko Aawaj reaches out to about one million listeners in Kaski, parts of Tanahun, Parbat and Syanjga districts on evening prime time and is also available online. Laudari would like the program to be syndicated throughout Nepal, but even the funding for the existing programs is running out by the end of this year.
Sharma says she is now more confident in speaking up for girls' rights, and in giving advice over the radio. Listeners call in to seek help, like a girl who was nearly raped by a hotel waiter. Sharma immediately called the TOLI hotline, the police arrested the man who was found guilty. Police say the number of reported cases of sexual harassment and abuse has doubled since Manko Awaj started broadcasting in 2009.
Sharma also senses a change in the attitude of male teachers towards female students: "They are more sensitive now, and girls are more confident about speaking up for themselves."
Radio Taranga is on 107.6 in Pokhara.
'Manko Aawaj' is broadcast every Saturday 7.30-8pm and can be heard online at: www.radiotaranga.com