Study: International organizations take oversimplified approach to understanding domestic violence in Nepal

LAWRENCE — Domestic violence is a problem throughout the world. To develop and support effective programs to address the issue, understanding the problem and strategies to address it must be grounded in knowledge of the local context. 

A new study from the University of Kansas has found that research reports written or sponsored by international organizations have often taken an oversimplified “cultural essentialist” approach to understanding domestic violence in Nepal.

Cultural essentialism includes ways of talking about a group that fail to recognize diversity within that group. When cultural essentialist framings of social problems are employed in discussions about low-income countries, they tend to portray the countries and the cultures within them through a deficit lens. This implies that relatively wealthy Western nations have all the answers while overlooking the ways practitioners and communities have long worked to address domestic violence within Nepal.

Claire Willey-Sthapit
Claire Willey-Sthapit

Claire Willey-Sthapit, assistant professor of social welfare at KU, led a study in which researchers analyzed 26 reports funded by diverse international development organizations studying domestic violence in Nepal over two decades. The analysis showed the works often framed violence as endemic to place and as a central aspect of Nepali culture. That approach overlooks the strengths of those working to address the problem as well as the ways that recent trends and transnational political-economic contexts, such as technological changes, the media and increasing labor migration, affect domestic violence in Nepal.

Willey-Sthapit, who lived and worked in Nepal for almost four years and whose spouse is Nepali, has a deep connection to the South Asian nation. As a country designated “least developed” by the United Nations and that was never colonized by an outside power, Nepal has long been a favored site for international development programs. Such programs not only fund and facilitate development activities but also produce ideas about the country, the problems to be addressed and potential solutions.

“That is a question I am interested in — how knowledge is circulating about Nepal,” Willey-Sthapit said. “These ideas impact how people in the U.S. and other relatively wealthy countries talk about Nepal, as well as the kinds of policies and programs that are likely to be developed and funded by international organizations as a result.”

The study, written with co-authors Taryn Lindhorst of the University of Washington, Susan Kemp of the University of Auckland and Maya Magarati of the University of Washington, was published in the journal Affilia: Feminist Inquiry in Social Work.

In analyzing research from international developers on Nepal, the authors found that cultural essentialist ideas were often promoted.

“This problem has been identified among transnational feminist scholars since at least the ‘80s,” Willey-Sthapit said of cultural essentialism. “I am a white American researcher, and sometimes in the U.S. I would hear cultural essentialist ideas, including both negative and romanticizing stereotypes, from well-meaning people with whom I spoke. This study was a way of deconstructing this way of thinking and seeing if we can do this research, and support those working against domestic violence, without reinforcing those hierarchies.”

Such essentialism in the analyzed reports tended to create binaries in terms of time and place, wherein present-day violence is explained only as a carryover from traditional Nepali culture. At the same time, social change is portrayed largely as coming from modernizing outside forces. A few publications, funded by powerful international organizations, imply that the issue is so widespread that everyone is either a victim or a perpetrator.

Essentialist approaches to understanding domestic violence in Nepal paint the nation with a broad brush, ignoring the fact that Nepal is an incredibly diverse country. More than 120 languages are spoken there, and there are more than 90 ethnic groups and considerable religious diversity. Overlooking all that misses the diverse approaches to addressing domestic violence on a community level.

“In the global context, cultural essentialist ways of framing domestic violence imply a deeply colonial (and dubious) solution, which is to change the culture by imposing Western strategies, rather than recognizing the cultural norms and practices that are already leveraged to address violence, and working together to identify and support promising strategies,” Willey-Sthapit said. “If you try to ground your understanding in Nepal and the ways people understand the issue, you can better grasp the historical, political, structural, normative and other contexts that enable violence and those that prevent it.”

While cultural essentialism was prevalent in the analyzed material, there were some important counternarratives present. A few documents, written by first authors working in Nepali or South Asian organizations, noted that patriarchy exists in Nepal as well as in other nations, including in high-income countries, and examined how that contributes to domestic violence. Several others, including some written by representatives from Nepal, South Asia and outside the region, discussed at least one global and/or recent historical shift that has contributed to domestic violence in some way. This included discussion of Nepal’s recent civil war, rising economic migration and the breakdown of strong community ties, and even — in one case — the lack of attention given to gender-based violence in development programming that sought to empower women.

Understanding such research is important as international development organizations are influential in how the world views a developing nation such as Nepal, the researchers said. They influence international investors, policymakers and others whose actions affect the lives of those living in the nation. By recognizing cultural essentialism in international development research about social problems such as domestic violence, development professionals and social workers can clear away unhelpful assumptions and create space for more reciprocal relationships and knowledge sharing toward effective action. 

Thu, 02/01/2024


Mike Krings

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