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Lack of awareness, stigma fuel marital rape in Nepal

Global Press Institute - Mon, 9 Jan 2012 10:00 GMT
Author: Global Press Institute
Global Press Institute
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Global Press Institute KATHMANDU, NEPAL - As the warm winter sun blankets Kathmandu, people are making the most of it and soaking up its rays. But not Devaki Poudel, 39, who lives across the river from Nepal's capital in the neighboring district of Lalitpur. Inside an old, three-story house, Poudel, who requested her first name be changed for safety reasons, has been busy all morning. At 11 a.m., she has finished sending her children to school and husband to work and completed her household chores for the morning. She sits down with a sigh. "Now, the entire day is mine," she says. "I hope it doesn't get dark." Poudel comes from Syangja, a district west of Kathmandu. She is slender and has long, black hair. She wears red bangles and vermillion - a red powder - on her head, which are Hindu symbols of marriage. She dons a red sweater over her kurta surwal, a traditional dress. Poudel's nerves are visible. She has a sweet voice, but it seems it's been suppressed. "My husband doesn't like me talking and socializing with others," she says. "If he finds out that I'm talking to someone..." She stops before completing her sentence. Poudel and her family have been living in a rented apartment in Lalitpur for 15 years. Her husband works as a security guard at a private company. On the surface, they look like a happy family. But Poudel says that their home is far from harmonious. Poudel got married when she was 15. Her parents didn't allow her to go to school because they believed she would become a prostitute if she gained an education. So they instead married her to 25-year-old Ramesh Poudel, whose first name has been changed to protect his identity, from a neighboring village. She says that her friends teased her for having a tall and handsome husband. "But if only looks were everything," she says. Poudel says she had been used to living an independent life, but her marriage destroyed this freedom. "From the second day of marriage, my life has been like hell," Poudel says. She says her husband began to fondle her private parts in ways that hurt her. He also forcefully had sexual intercourse with her. Marred by bruises and her husband's teeth marks, her skin bore testament to the nightly scuffles. The abuse was so severe that it hurt her genitals, but she says she kept quiet about it. "Sometimes, I use[d] to have fever because I couldn't bear it," she says. "But I couldn't tell anyone." A few days after her wedding, Poudel says she went to her parents' house and told her mother that she didn't want to return to her husband's home. But her mother told her that this would be wrong because women had to stay with their husbands, no matter how hard it was. And life had become hard for Poudel. Following a tiring day of work at the farm and in the house, she says she wanted to enjoy a peaceful night. But despite her desire to rest, her husband forced her to have sex with him. When Poudel tried to shout in pain, he closed her mouth. When she refused to have sex with him, he kicked and hit her. "There was no option than to be living as a walking dead," she says. Even when she suffered pain during menstruation, he had anal sex with her. Three years after her marriage, she got pregnant with her first child. Even during pregnancy, she says he forced her to have sex with him. "Even before a day earlier that the child was born, he didn't spare me," she says, with surprise spreading across her face. "How was I bearing that?" She says that this is the first time she has told anyone about the abuse, which she has been enduring for nearly 25 years. She kept quiet to avoid embarrassing the family, as it is taboo to talk about sex in Nepali culture. After having three kids and moving to Kathmandu, she says she thought her husband might show some restraint. But instead, the situation has intensified. He began bringing home X-rated movies and forcing her to imitate the sexual acts performed in the videos with him. When she disagrees, he drags her down the stairs as punishment. Poudel says that her neighbors and landlord have heard her crying, but she usually covers it up as a domestic dispute. Even when her sisters or relatives come to visit, they never discuss sex. "How do I discuss bedroom matters with others?" she asks. "And at the end of the day, it's me who has to suffer." Many wives in Nepal suffer from marital rape on a routine basis, which advocates against it cite as a consequence of the male-dominated culture here. The Nepali government amended the law against rape to include marital rape six years ago. Still, many women say they have never heard of the term "marital rape" or of the law against it because it is taboo to talk about sex. But even when they become aware, uneducated and educated women alike decline to report their husbands because of this taboo, deeply ingrained notions of respect and economic factors. Some report the abuse instead as domestic violence, but police send most couples home after counseling at the police station and forward few cases to court. Since the issue of marital rape is not discussed openly in Nepal, reliable statistics are unavailable. There are currently about 110 men in Bhadra Prison in Kathmandu for rape, including nearly 40 with life sentences, according to data from the Central Prison. But none is there for marital rape. Advocates against marital rape attribute it to poverty, illiteracy, backwardness and a male-dominated society. Suchitra Mainali, a sociology professor at Padma Kanya Multiple College, the first women's college in Nepal, says that Nepal is a male-dominated society, where women have often been suppressed. "In every household, women have been bearing the brutality of marital rape," Mainali says. "It seems like women have been used to bearing with such pain." Like Poudel, Phoolmaya Limbu, whose first name has been changed to protect her safety, says she has also long suffered from marital rape. Limbu, 49, is from Jhapa, a district in eastern Nepal. Limbu got married 31 years ago at age 18. Although it was an arranged marriage, she says life was comfortable with her husband, who was 24. But soon after her marriage, she started having children every year. She gave birth to seven children. Between parental duties and household chores, Limbu says it was difficult for her to satisfy her husband's persistent sexual needs. "Even while I was pregnant, he didn't give me a moment of relief," she says. While she was giving birth to her last child 15 years ago, Limbu suffered a uterine prolapse, when the uterus slips down from its normal position, a common problem among Nepali women in rural areas. As she was in pain, Limbu says she requested her husband time and again to refrain from physical contact until she recovered. "But he threatened to bring a second wife, and he just forced me to have sex," she says. Limbu says that when her uterus was coming out, it was extremely difficult and painful to have intercourse. There were times when she had to push her uterus inside her body with her hands. "I didn't tell this to anyone, and I had no idea that I had to go to a doctor for this," she says. It was only after advice from a neighbor five years later that she visited the maternity hospital in Kathmandu for a checkup. There, she saw many other women with uterine prolapses, which she says consoled her. The doctors put a ring in her body to hold her uterus in position, and Limbu says she felt some relief. But it didn't solve the problem, so her children took her back to the hospital, where doctors removed her uterus. Despite these health problems, she says her husband didn't refrain from forcing her to have intercourse. To deal with the pain, she started to drink alcohol. She says she usually got tipsy and sometimes even drunk to tolerate the forced sex. "It seems that to be born as a woman is a waste," she says. Limbu says that the abuse continues today. Nepali law defines rape as sex without consent or when someone is threatened into giving consent. It classifies rape as an offense against the state and a crime of unnatural stature. But the inclusion of marital rape in this law is fairly recent. Susha Gautam of the Forum for Women, Law and Development says that the human rights organization played a major role in persuading the government to recognize and amend the law on rape to include marital rape, which it did in 2006. But even with the law amended to include marital rape, Gautam says that it's difficult and time-consuming for women to pursue cases. Gautam says that cases concerning adults take longer than cases involving minors, and many times guilty husbands receive bail and the couples have to live under the same roof during the judicial process. "This might lead to more violence," she says. Gautam says that jail time if found guilty also only ranges from three to six months, at which point the victim will be in danger again. Moreover, Gautam says that many women have never even heard the term "marital rape," let alone about the law against it. Gautam says that it's because women don't discuss these issues that no one knows about them. Both Poudel and Limbu say they didn't know that marital rape was illegal in Nepal. A professor at a public college, who declined to be named, says that women from the city with formal education may be even less inclined to speak about marital rape than uneducated women. "Maybe women who are illiterate might speak," she says. "For us, there are many social constraints." Even when women are aware of what marital rape is and the law against it, many still don't report it because of a loyalty to their husbands that is deeply ingrained in Nepali culture. Mainali says that there is a traditional mindset that wives have to serve their husbands day and night. Because of the social stigma attached to defying or leaving one's husband, women choose to stay with their husbands despite the problems they face. "Our [societal] construction is such that men are the lords, and women, their slaves," Mainali says. Other women cite economic reasons for not reporting their husbands. Sharmila Dhungel, whose first name has been changed to protect her safety, is from Illam, a district in eastern Nepal. She also endured marital rape for many years, but unlike Poudel and Limbu, she confided in a women's rights activist. But she says that when the activist told her that her husband could go to jail, she refrained from reporting him. She says her family couldn't afford for him to go to jail because he was its sole provider. So instead of reporting him, she asked her husband to work abroad under the pretense of earning more money. "I'm OK for now," she says. "But when he comes back, it's going to be the same problem." Gautam says that women ages 20 to 60 often visit her office to report rape. But she says that although the women want to report the incidents, they aren't able to be fully open about the abuse they endured. "Some cases are so severe that I feel there's no worth of humanity," she says. Rupa Shrestha, database manager at the Women's Rehabilitation Center, a nongovernmental organization, also says that although women come in with complaints, they are too scared to file a formal report against their husbands because of personal and social reasons. She says cases have been scarce nationally. "There have only been two cases in the court since the law has been established," Shrestha says. Women say people would label them as characterless if they filed marital rape reports against their husbands because it is taboo to talk about bedroom matters, Gautam says. Therefore, victims of marital rape are more comfortable with filing cases under the Domestic Violence Act 2009. The act covers physical, mental, sexual and financial torture, and punishments include fines ranging from 3,000 to 25,000 rupees ($35 to $300) and/or six months in prison, she says. Gautam says domestic violence reports have been rising likely because of an increased awareness among women of their rights rather than an increase in domestic violence. Domestic violence reports jumped substantially last year in Nepal, according to data from Nepal Police's Women and Children's Cell. There were 968 reports in 2009 and 983 in 2010, yet already 1,355 reports by the end of April 2011. In the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal Police has a separate women's division to handle gender-based violence. When women report domestic violence, it usually has to do with some sort of sexual violence and marital rape, says Lal Kumari Khadka of the women's prison in Lalitpur. Police listen to the cases in order to decide whether to advance them to the justice system. Khadka says rape cases are hard to listen to. For example, some women have shared instances of their husbands shoving their fists into their vaginas, she says. But most of the cases are discussed and resolved with both parties, who are sent home together after some counseling from police at the station, Khadka says. Police send few cases to court. Deepa Acharya, legal adviser from the National Women's Council, says that the government is working to raise awareness through special ministries and councils created to address women's issues. She says the media is also helping to make more women aware of marital rape and the laws and resources available to assist them. "Work is in progress," Acharya says. "The government is also working toward it. It takes time for people to be aware." But even victims who are aware that marital rape is illegal still refuse to report it. Limbu says she is not willing to report her husband. Poudel says her life has been a "living hell," but she still thinks highly of her husband. "Whatever it is, he is my married husband," she says. "My identity is associated with him. But in my next life, I don't want to be born as a daughter. I want to be born as a man." Read the original post here

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