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Alum Indra Maya Shankar: Helping to end gender-based violence

Posted: 5 December 2023

Nepal, Alumni, Impact,

Indra Maya Shankar is a development professional who is currently working as a Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) Expert for the Provincial and Local Governance Support Program (PLGSP)—one of the Government of Nepal’s flagship development initiatives in collaboration with multilateral development agencies. Currently, she is based in Doti district in Far-West Nepal.

With the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship, Indra completed a Master of International Development at Flinders University in 2020. Since completing her Scholarship, Indra’s contributions to mitigating gender-based violence have included conducting orientation for 88 local governments to adopt a model code of conduct to control gender-based violence, supporting 75 local governments to develop strategies to mainstream GESI, supporting 64 local governments to conduct GESI audits, and reaching more than 2500 people by facilitating training on GESI and gender-responsive budgeting for local governments. Indra is very proud of her contributions, yet she feels that there is still a lot to be done because gender-based violence is “such a massive issue”.

Indra holding her master’s degree certificate from Flinders University.

Indeed, gender-based violence is rampantly pervasive around the globe. According to UN Women, one in three women globally suffer from gender-based violence at least once in their life. Nepal is no exception. Research by the Government of Nepal suggests that around 27% of women have experienced either physical, sexual or emotional violence from their husbands / intimate partners. As a GESI professional, Indra has observed several forms of gender-based violence, including physical assault, sexual harassment, and mental torture of women and girls. In addition, Nepalese women also suffer from local customary practices such as chhaupadi, which involves banishing menstruating girls and women from their homes and into small, dark huts. Indra also notes that among middle-class people, who have relatively high levels of education and income, mental violence is more prevalent: knowing that physical assault might send them to jail, perpetrators in such situations tend to torture their victims psychologically—for example, ignoring their needs and wants.

Indra also notes the wide-reaching implications of gender-based violence: it not only affects women and girls but also increases the vulnerability of children, potentially harming their growth and development. Additionally, it hampers the economic wellbeing of families and consequently jeopardises social development, triggering conflict and crimes. With this in mind, Indra believes that gender-based violence should be addressed as a cross-cutting issue.

Several efforts have been made by both the Government of Nepal and non-governmental entities to minimise gender-based violence in Nepal. These efforts include greater representation: each municipality has at least one female member and the deputy mayors are nearly all women. And, as Indra mentions, Nepal has done incredibly well with its legal provisions: gender-based violence is defined as a heinous crime and is punishable by law. In each district hospital, the Government of Nepal has also introduced a ‘One Step Crisis Management Centre’ to assist with gender-based violence cases. Likewise, survivors of gender-based violence can access shelters where they can take refuge for up to one month for free. But despite these legal provisions and institutional mechanisms, gender-based violence cases are still rising. As Indra points out, the main reason is “a gap between policies and practices”.

While Indra knows the challenges to eliminating gender-based violence in Nepal, she is optimistic about overcoming them. She believes that gender-based violence could be prevented by conscious efforts society-wide, particularly by young and energetic people, including men. Everyone should feel that it is their responsibility to combat gender-based violence. This sense of responsibility and awareness of the potential contributions she could make to end gender-based violence led Indra to work in the gender field.

Indra’s upbringing, studies, profession and Australia Awards journey all reinforced her commitment to combat gender-based violence. She was born in Pauthak village, now part of Menchhayam Rural Municipality of Terhathum District in eastern Nepal. Her parents, despite their modest background as members of a traditionally marginalised community, facilitated her education, which was considered a privilege for many girls at the time. She was one of only two girls from the whole of Pauthak to be permitted to leave the village to earn their undergraduate degrees in the neighbouring district of Dhankuta. Indra then completed her Master of Sociology from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, following which she worked in food security/right-to-food and gender for about ten years. Initially, she worked with FoodFirst Information and Action Network International. Later, she worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In these roles, she saw firsthand many practical examples of how gender discrimination affects food security for women. While working, Indra became passionate about developing a more profound understanding of gender and development. In pursuit of this goal, she applied for an Australia Awards Scholarship and in 2019 was selected to study a Master of International Development.

Indra in her current office in Doti, Nepal.

While going through her master’s degree program at Flinders University, Indra was able to further develop her familiarity with different dimensions of gender, such as intersectionality, gender audit and gender mainstreaming. In addition, she observed how GESI is practiced in Australia. “These [experiences] changed my perspectives on gender and development,” she says. “I can now see everything from a gender lens. For example, if I go to an office, I tend to look at whether it has a separate washroom for female staff, whether it has a designated place for breastfeeding mothers, whether it is safe enough for women to work, etc.” Although such elements may be small details individually, “they bring about big impacts” when taken together, she says.

As a graduate of an Australian university and an Australia Awards alum, Indra now feels more confident about GESI. She says, “I can see something from different perspectives and try to analyse it more critically. I am not afraid of challenges.” This confidence led her to work for the community in the far-western part of Nepal, which is still considered remote and marginalised in many respects. When applying for the Australia Awards Scholarship, Indra mentioned in her Development Impact and Linkages Plan that she would work to support people from remote areas. “I feel privileged to be able to keep my commitment,” she says.

When reflecting on her contribution, Indra feels happy about her long list of achievements, which include outcomes such as rural municipalities allocating funding for training and awareness programs to fight gender-based violence, and local governments formulating GESI codes of conduct and raising awareness through activities such as billboards. Yet she feels that there is a lot more to be done. Indra says, “We have to empower women both economically and socially; extend strong support to gender-based violence survivors, including providing them with psychosocial counselling; have more male allies to combat gender-based violence; and, more importantly, capacitate the government mechanism to bridge the gap between policy and practice.”

In this light, Indra believes that occasions like International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence that follow are significant because they remind us of our responsibility—and, in doing so, they motivate us to maintain our energy and commitment to end gender-based violence, both in Nepal and globally.