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Kidnapping Women for Marriage Persists in Nepali Indigenous Group

Global Press Institute - Mon, 12 Dec 2011 09:53 GMT
Author: Global Press Institute
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MUSTANG, NEPAL - Mendok Gurung, 19, says a group of men kidnapped her six years ago from a family wedding. But her abductors weren't interested in a ransom or trafficking her. Instead, they took Gurung because a man from the village twice her age wanted to marry her. In Mustang, a district in Nepal's Western region that borders Tibet, the tradition of kidnapping women for marriage still prevails in certain villages. Gurung, from Khinga village in Mustang, says that she cried and begged for help as the men took her, but no one came to her rescue. She says that they took her to the house of the "mukhiya," the leader of the village. Pointing at her husband, who sits beside her, Gurung says he locked her in the house for days. "I was locked for three days in the mukhiya's house and pressurized to marry him," Gurung says. She says they threatened her and tricked her family. "They threatened me that they'll kill my family if I don't agree to marry," she says. "When people from my house came to ask me what I wanted, they didn't let me see them. [Someone told me] they replaced me with another woman, covered her face and made her nod her head in approval of marriage." She says that if she hadn't agreed to the marriage, there would have been a tussle between the people of their and his communities, which she didn't want. She also says that she had to get married to someone someday, so she agreed to stay with the man who "stole" her. "I didn't have any choice after I couldn't revolt in those three days," she says. "Because of our tradition, I stayed with him." Gurung's husband, Norbu Gurung, 40, says that this tradition is still strong in the Nepali-Tibetan border areas as well as in places around Muktinath and Kagbeni in Nepal's Western region. He acknowledges that the tradition doesn't respect women's wishes or rights, but he says that it brings honor to the men in the region. "Even if men and women like each other, there's this tradition of 'stealing' the girl and eloping," he says. "When you steal a girl, it is more reputed. But sometimes, when the girl isn't ready, there could be a big fight between the two families." In an indigenous group in a district in Nepal, a tradition still exists where men kidnap women in order to marry them. Some say this custom violates women's rights. Forced marriage is illegal in Nepal, but many say that more legislation and education is needed to strengthen women's voice in deciding whom they marry. Nepal has one of the highest early and forced marriage prevalence rates in the world, according to a 2011 report by Plan, a global children's charity. The average age of first marriage in Nepal is below 18. Iman Singh Gurung, a sociologist, says that the tradition of kidnapping brides in Mustang dates back to before Nepal annexed the former kingdom at the end of the 18th century. The tradition is prevalent in the village development committees across central Mustang, such as Kagbeni, Muktinath and Jhong and Chhusang. Lalbahadir Pun, a senior researcher on this topic, says this area is called "Barha Gaule." Barha means 12, and gaule meaning villagers in Nepali, as the area originally comprised 12 villages. Rajkumar Lekhi, chairman of the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, an autonomous and nonpartisan umbrella organization of indigenous people, says that the 12 villages make up one of the 59 indigenous groups listed by the Nepali government. He says they have unique marriage customs. "There isn't an age limit for marriage in this community," he says. "It depends on the family environment and the situation then and there. They also marry within their same community, even with first cousins." Lekhi says that kidnapping brides is another marriage tradition of the indigenous group. "When a man likes a woman, the tradition of forcefully taking away the woman and getting married also exists in this community," he says. "And if the women are against it, there is also a tradition of using force. Usually people from the men's side come to take the woman away. Sometimes, though, the women's family is against it. If the men's party wins, they can take their daughter." Pun says that they keep the woman in the mukhiya's house, as Gurung says was done to her. "Because there is opposition from the girl's family, she is usually kept in the mukhiya's house," he says. "She is usually kept for three days, and within this time, the girl's family tries to get their daughter back. After the third day, two or three people from the girl's family go and inquire if she is happy to live with the man. If the answer is positive, the family then agrees on the wedding." After the girl agrees to the marriage, the man and his relatives go to her house, saying, "Horch, horch," which means "forgiveness" in their local dialect. They take along "chyaang," local rice wine, and "khada," a piece of cream-colored silk cloth used on special occasions, for the bride's entire family. The groom also offers money to the bride as collateral so that she can start a new life for herself if the marriage doesn't work out. The tradition also requires the groom to repay the bride's parents for the breast milk she was fed as a baby by offering the mother a minimum amount of 8 Nepali rupees (10 cent USD) and a khada and the father 1 Nepali rupee (1 cent USD) and a khada. After this offering, the youngest member from the groom's family offers chyaang to the bride's family. Then, the groom has to bow down to every member of the girl's family. But Tashi Syangbo, who represents this region in Nepali's national parliament, says that many times, the tradition doesn't follow this communal process. She says that the girls are usually threatened and also mentally traumatized, forcing them to agree to the wedding. For example, she says that men trick the girl's family by replacing her with a different woman who has her face covered and is told to nod her approval to the family, as Gurung says was done in her case. Syangbo says the tradition has been declining, but that many men and the mukhiya still partake in and support it. She says she is actively working to spread awareness about these negative aspects of this tradition. "So many people from around the globe come here to see our place," Syangbo says of the tourism-rich region. "But we have traditions like these. So we are requesting and telling people not to kidnap women who they like and marry against their will." She says that she is striving to give these women a voice. "Women can't raise their voice against this tradition," she says. "I've also raised the issue in the Parliament, but nothing has happened. That's why I thought it would be good to come here and talk to them." She says that although many men she spoke with agreed verbally that they wouldn't "steal" the girls and marry them against their will, they refused to sign any documents confirming this pledge. Phurba Tamang, 22, says stealing women is the only way for men who aren't rich to get married. "It's only the rich men who get to marry the girl they like," he says. "No one wants to marry us. All the girls want to get married to the rich men. We also have to get married." Tamang says that this tradition will help keep the tradition of marriage alive and offer everyone an opportunity to get married. But Syangbo says she detests this mindset. She says that forced marriage is a violation of human rights. "This has to end," she says. Bikas Bhattarai, a lawyer, says that Chapter 17, Article 7 of Nepal's civil code outlaws forced marriage. The punishment is two years in prison. But in these communities in Mustang, traditions supersede the laws. Madhusudhan Luitel became deputy superintendent of police in Mustang five months ago. He says that his department hasn't handled any cases of forced marriages, but he says he doesn't anticipate many as most are handled within the village. "There are only minor cases, most of which are taken to the mukhiya," he says. "We only get eight to 10 cases a year." Syangbo says that there needs to be a special bill to end this tradition and that has special provision must be presented in the parliament. "I've also started working on this matter personally too," she says. Syangbo says many girls in this area have stated coming to Kathmandu to escape forced marriage and attain an education instead. Syangbo says she has helped more than six women from Mustang who have come to Kathmandu. Gurung, the sociologist, says education is key. "This tradition has @font-face { font-family: "Times"; }@font-face { font-family: "Cambria"; }@font-face { font-family: "Optima"; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 10pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1;decreased over time with the increase in educational level," he says.

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