Making a stand
In Hong Kong, women enjoy a high degree of independence and equality. When things go wrong at home, the law is there to protect them. But this is not the case in Nepal, as a group of Hong Kong students discovered when they visited the Himalayan nation in summer.
'Here, women don't always get respected or treated fairly,' Subhadra Adhikary, chairwoman of the paralegal committees of Unicef in Nepal, told her visitors. 'Women are suppressed in many ways.'
Unicef is the United Nations Children's Fund. Its paralegal programme in Nepal was set up in 2005 to protect women and children against violence, abuse and exploitation. There are 37 paralegal committees across the country with a total of 557 female members. Unicef helps these community-based groups by offering members training and legal advice. Paralegals have some legal training - enough in some cases to perform limited legal duties and offer basic advice - but they are not qualified lawyers.
Adhikary told the students about the case of a 35-year-old woman who was beaten repeatedly by her husband after he accused her of having another man's child.
'As it turned out, he was the one who was cheating on her,' said Adhikary.
'Last year, her husband became ill and died, and her in-laws wanted to kick her out of their home. That's when she came to us for help.'
Adhikary's committee helped settle the woman's case. Now she has her share of the land and lives with her son.
'When someone comes for help, we usually try to speak to the concerned parties as mediators before seeking legal action. If the negotiation fails, we will transfer the case to the legal department.'
The paralegal committees have also helped husbands who are victims of family disputes. Last year, the committees handled 154 cases, of which 118 were solved at the community level by mediation.
'As a woman, I want to look after other women. It makes me happy when I see they are empowered by our work,' said Adhikary.
The Hong Kong students were shocked after hearing Adhikary and her team members recount their stories.
Alecia Ng Hei-yan is a Form Six student from Heep Yunn School which values equal rights among men and women.
'These women are so brave to take the initiative to help,' the 18-year-old student said. 'In Hong Kong, [we believe] everybody is equal. It's hard to imagine things are so different [in Nepal] - we all live on the same planet.'
Fellow student Nathaniel Yuen Chun-hei was equally impressed.
'They're so energetic. They don't complain and they're so proud of themselves,' said the 17-year-old from SKH Tsang Shui Tim Secondary School. 'In Nepal, women's rights may take time to develop. I think their work will have a huge effect.'
Alecia and Nathaniel were two of the 56 'young envoys' sent by Unicef Hong Kong to Nepal this summer.
During the five-day visit, they talked to children and women's groups and learned about the needs of a developing country.
Students interested in joining the Young Envoys 2011 programme can visit www.unicef.org.hk