Taboos Undercut Nepal's Marital Rape Law

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Many women in Nepal say they didn't know that involuntary intercourse within marriage has been outlawed. Women's advocates say those who are aware would rather call it a form of domestic violence than marital rape.

KATHMANDU, Nepal (WOMENSENEWS) -- Devaki Poudel, 39, has kept quiet about the abuse she's been enduring at the hands of her husband for nearly 25 years. She didn't want to embarrass her family.

Now, as Poudel talks, her nerves are visible. She has a sweet voice, but it seems suppressed.

"My husband doesn't like me talking and socializing with others," says Poudel, who requested her first name be changed for safety reasons. "If he finds out that I'm talking to someone . . . "

Poudel, her husband and their three kids have been living for 15 years in a rented apartment in the Lalitpur district, across the river from Nepal's capital. Her husband works as a security guard at a private company.

They were married when she was 15. Her parents prevented her from attending school because they believed she would become a prostitute if she were educated. To avert this fate, they married her to a man from a neighboring village, 25-year-old Ramesh Poudel, whose first name has also been changed to protect his identity.

On the surface, they look like a happy family. But Poudel says otherwise.

"From the second day of marriage, my life has been like hell," she 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.

A few days after her wedding, Poudel says she told her mother she didn't want to return to her husband's home. But her mother said women had to stay with their husbands, no matter how hard it was.

Never Discussing Sex

Poudel says 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."

Six years ago, the Nepal government amended its law against rape to include marital rape, yet many women such as Poudel say they haven't heard of the term or the law against it.

Even when they become aware, uneducated and educated women alike most often decline to report their husbands. They share the deeply ingrained taboo not to talk about sex, complicated by notions of respect for husbands and economic factors.

In contrast, women have increasingly invoked the Domestic Violence Law of 2009. Family violence reports jumped substantially last year in Nepal, according to data from Nepal Police Women and Children's Cell. There were 968 reports in 2009 and 983 in 2010. By the end of April the following year, there were already 1,355.

Rupa Shrestha, database manager at the Women's Rehabilitation Center, a nongovernmental organization, says that although women come in with complaints, they are too scared to file a formal report of marital rape 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.

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