By Tara Bhattarai
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.
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.
Women say people would attack their characters if they filed marital rape reports, says Susha Gautam of the Forum for Women, Law and Development. Instead, victims of marital rape are more comfortable filing domestic violence cases.
The Domestic Violence Act covers physical, mental, sexual and financial torture, and punishments include fines ranging from 3,000 to 25,000 rupees ($35 to $300) and possible prison terms of up to six months, Gautam says. Domestic violence reports have been rising, she adds, likely because of an increased awareness among women of their rights rather than an increase in domestic violence.
Since the issue of marital rape is not discussed openly in Nepal, reliable statistics are unavailable. Currently about 110 men are serving time 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.
"In every household, women have been bearing the brutality of marital rape," says Suchitra Mainali, a sociology professor at Padma Kanya Multiple College, the first women's college in Nepal. "It seems like women have been used to bearing it with such pain."
In the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal police have 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.
Many don't report such cases because of a loyalty to their husbands that is deeply ingrained in Nepali culture and the social stigma attached to defying or leaving one's husband, Mainali says.
Women such as Phoolmaya Limbu, whose first name has been changed to protect her safety, remain loyal, even though says she has also long suffered from marital rape.
Limbu, 49, is from Jhapa, a district in eastern Nepal. Despite suffering a uterine prolapse, when the uterus slips down from its normal position, 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.
Women from the city with formal education may be even less inclined to speak about marital rape than uneducated women, says a professor at a public college, who declined to be named. Other women cite economic reasons for not reporting their husbands, as they are the sole provider in the household.
Deepa Acharya, a 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."
Despite such efforts, victims such as Poudel and Limbu remain unwilling to report their husbands. 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."
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Tara Bhattarai is a senior investigative reporter for Global Press Institute's Nepal News Desk. She strives to tell the stories of the dispossessed, the disabled, the distressed and the terminally ill.