Heather Webb

Heather Webb (Women’s Reproductive Rights Program - WRRP): Heather earned her BA in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004, and then studied law at the New York Law School in 2008. After Law School, Heather practiced law for nearly three years in the corporate department of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP. At the time of her fellowship, Heather was studying for a Master’s degree in international law at the New York University School of Law with a focus on international human rights law. While at NYU, Heather also worked as an Advocacy Volunteer for MADRE, and an Intern for the Legal Advocacy Program of CONNECT, a domestic violence organization. During the Fall semester, Heather served as a Legal Intern for Human Rights Watch, where she worked for the Disability Rights Researcher/Advocate. After her fellowship she wrote: “Through my fellowship with WRRP, I have learned so much about life from a very different perspective. I have found it amazing how the layers of understanding keep peeling away the longer I stay here and the more I experience in rural Nepal. This experience has been a life-changing one and has reaffirmed my commitment to a career advancing human rights.”


04 Aug

“The mothers all look so young here”, observed WRRP Advocacy Officer Dushala Adhikari during a walk we took on our first day in Surkhet together.  Glad I am not the only person who thinks so.

Dushala Adhikari, Advocacy Officer, WRRP, on a Walk in Surkhet

Dushala Adhikari, Advocacy Officer, WRRP, on a Walk in Surkhet

After a week and a half in Kathmandu to digest my fieldwork in Lahan, I have now returned to Surkhet District of Nepal for my second visit to this WRRP working area.  Thinking back to my first few days in Surkhet in June, I realize that while things in Surkhet are comfortably the same, I am now changed.  After two months of immersing myself in Nepal and WRRP’s work, I now view my surroundings with a heightened focus on the status of women and a fierce commitment to fighting against child marriage.

A View of Surkhet

A View of Birendranagar Municipality in Surkhet

Thanks to Dushala’s fearless yet approachable nature and stellar connections, we hit the ground running in Surkhet.  After a meeting with the District Health Officer, with whom Dushala has worked previously, Dushala stopped a tiny, teenaged-looking woman with one young child on her back and another by her side to ask for directions as to how we might be able to avoid a flooded portion of the main road.

I stood silently by for a length of time which I thought only to be long enough for the Nepali speakers to discuss our path around the flood and engage in some casual small talk.  As we parted ways from the tiny, local woman, Dushala informed me that she had extracted that the woman was 21 years old, had married at the age of 13 or 14, and had developed uterine prolapse after giving birth to her first child at the age of 18.  Oh yes, and we now had plans for the next day to visit this woman’s home and speak with her some more.

“Do you know that woman?”, I asked Dushala in baffled amazement.

“Not before today.”  Dushala explained that this woman had just looked so young to be carrying around two children so she started asking some questions.  Excellent; I’m sticking with Dushala.

The next day, I started the meeting with our new friend, Renu*, with much excitement: child marriageuterine prolapse, everything that I am focusing on just falling into my lap!

I finished the meeting, however, with a nauseating pit growing in my stomach and anger swelling in my chest.  Renu had so much more to tell us than a tale of familial pressure to marry early and a prolapsed uterus.  Renu’s husband may or may not be the devil incarnate.  Renu’s husband is abusive toward her.  Regularly.  Humiliatingly.  Physically, sexually, emotionally.  On one occasion, triggered by Renu visiting with a friend of a caste that was “beneath” them, Renu’s husband repeatedly kicked her – in the face, making her nose bleed – took her to the toilet and made her eat his feces, and “violated her many times”.

For this violence, Renu’s husband spent one day in jail, released upon the penning of his signature to the tune of “I won’t do it again”.

Renu, 21, Surkhet

Renu, 21, Surkhet

“I know what are the causes of my uterine prolapse”, Renu said to Dushala and me.  “I married early, I had a child early, and many times, including as soon as the third day after giving birth to my first child, my husband would come home drunk and forcefully have sex with me.”  Yeparoo.

Renu told us that she has thought about leaving her husband, but that she never wants to get married again: “all men are the same”, she declared.

Renu, 21, with her two young children

Renu, 21, with her two young children

I do not think that all men are the same, and maybe neither does Renu – then again, given her experience, maybe she does – however, it has been my observation that, quite apart from engaging in physical violence against women, a significant number of men in Nepal lack sensitivity to women’s issues and gender injustices.  I do not mean to men-bash – I love men, I have enjoyed meeting many men in Nepal, I work with some terrific men employed by WRRP.  But just yesterday I learned the Nepali word “joitinjre”, which is a derogatory term for a man who supports his wife – a term meant to imply that a man has lost his male-ness and thus lowered himself to the status of women.

Many of the women who have suffered from uterine prolapse with whom I have spoken have told me that they do not feel that they can talk to their husbands about their problems, that their husbands do not want them to use ring pessaries because it interferes with their comfort during sex, that their husbands don’t want them to visit the health center or undergo prolapse surgery… and on and on as such.

While in Lahan, I discussed this issue with Karuna Kunwar, the psychologist who led a psychosocial analysis training for WRRP’s Uterine Prolapse Campaigners.  Karuna told me that, although couples rarely seek her assistance for the purpose of sorting out sexual issues, such issues almost always surface.  “Many men simply do not know how to respect women’s bodies, and many women have no idea how to go about getting such respect”, Karuna said.

We desperately need to educate men and boys – not only specifically about thecauses and consequences of uterine prolapse, but also more generally about gender justice and women’s rights.  It needs to be done in a deliberate manner.  And we need to do it in such a way that men and boys embrace these concepts, understanding the benefits that they themselves and their families and communities will thereafter derive.

Educating the men has to be more than informing husbands that their wives should not carry heavy loads during pregnancy, and must go deeper to instill the sense in males of all ages, castes, wealth, and experience that women and girls are just as equal and valuable citizens as men and boys.

One of the saddest moments for both Dushala and me during our meeting with Renu was while saying our goodbyes when her three-year-old son begged to come with us, two strangers, including one white-skinned foreigner.  As pointed a sign of an unhappy and unhealthy home as there could be.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

Posted By Heather Webb

Posted Aug 4th, 2012

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