Advocates Seek Legal Protection, Compensation for Women in Live-In Relationships

Young women in Nepal who choose to live with their boyfriends lack the legal protections and rights of married women. Although living together is not socially accepted, more urban couples are choosing to do so to minimize living costs and enjoy sexual freedom.

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Advocates Seek Legal Protection, Compensation for Women in Live-In Relationships

Sharmila Limbu, who was abandoned by her boyfriend last year, helps her 3-year-old son get dressed at their home in Kathmandu.

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KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Sharmila Limbu, 24, holds her 3-year-old son and gazes blankly at the bustle of vehicles and people beneath her second-story window in a busy section of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. Occasionally her eyes stray to her silent mobile phone.

Limbu longs to hear from her former boyfriend, the father of her child, even a year after he left her.

“He vanished,” she says, tears welling up.

Limbu came to Kathmandu in search of work in 2007; at 17, she had just failed her 10th-grade exams. Her parents barely made a living farming a small plot and running a liquor shop in their house in Panchthar district, a rural area in eastern Nepal.

While working in a guesthouse in Kathmandu, Limbu met a young man who suggested they move in together to minimize their living costs; they did so in 2008. Because of the social stigma of living with a man before marriage, she kept her living arrangement secret and gradually cut ties with her family.

Despite being estranged from family, she was happy in the relationship, she says.

“For the first few months of living with him, I felt like I found physical and sexual pleasure,” she says. “I was very excited.”

But her happiness did not last long. Six months after the two moved in together, Limbu got pregnant. She hoped her boyfriend would marry her, but he pressured her to have an abortion, she says.

Two years later, she got pregnant again. This time, Limbu decided to have the baby. Limbu’s partner supported the family for more than two years, Limbu says. And then one day in March 2014, he left for work and never returned.

Now Limbu makes a living washing dishes for families in Kathmandu’s Maharajgunj neighborhood. She earns about 5,000 rupees ($50) a month, she says.

Limbu is one of many young women in Nepal who have entered live-in relationships in the failed hope that they will lead to marriage.

Rapid urbanization, which draws rural youths into the cities, and the high cost of urban living have led more young couples to live together before – or instead of – marrying. Advocates say women in these relationships have become vulnerable to violence and abuse. The men often abandon these women, sometimes leaving them with children.

Nepalese laws do not recognize the rights of women in these de facto partnerships – relationships in which people who are not married live together as a couple. NGOs and government agencies are trying to persuade lawmakers to amend laws to provide justice and compensation to these women and their children.

In the boom of economic development that followed the restoration of democracy in 1990, many people – especially younger people – left farm communities to seek work in cities, says Suresh Dhakal, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.

Migrants get to taste liberty in the city, Dhakal says. However, facing loneliness as well as a high cost of living, some unmarried young couples choose to live together.

In 2012, a one-bedroom apartment in Kathmandu cost an average of 10,570 rupees ($100), according to the website, which provides cost-of-living data about cities around the world. By December 2014, that cost had increased to 12,450 rupees ($120).

Costs of other mainstays have also increased. The average cost of a dozen eggs rose from 89 rupees (88 cents) in 2012 to 130 rupees ($1.28) last year. The cost of basic utilities rose from 2,430 rupees ($25) to 3,980 rupees ($40).

The number of young men and women living together has gradually risen over the past decade in cities such as Kathmandu and Pokhara, Dhakal says. He has observed the trend among students and research subjects.

But the Hindu faith and Nepalese moral standards prohibit sex before marriage, so couples who live together are compelled to hide their living arrangements, Dhakal says. As a result, there is little information available on couples who live together.

Nepalese law does not recognize de facto partnerships, says Sushma Gautam, advocate at the Forum for Women, Law and Development, a nongovernmental organization working for women’s rights in Nepal.

The Domestic Violence (Crime and Punishment) Act of 2009 protects only women who are legally married. Likewise, Chapter 4 of the Country Code, which grants women the right to claim a deceased partner’s property, applies only to married women.

Domestic violence is rising in de facto partnerships, says Birendra K.C., legal officer at the National Women Commission, a government agency established to pursue gender justice.

From July 2012 to July 2013, women in live-in relationships accounted for nearly 25 percent of domestic abuse cases reported to the commission. By December 2014, women in de facto partnerships submitted more than 31 percent of such reports.

In most cases, the person who contacts the commission simply inquires about legal provisions and declines to lodge a formal complaint, commission Chairperson Sheikh Chandtara says. Many fear stigma. And in the absence of legal protections other than those that apply to assault victims generally, they are unlikely to see their abusers brought to justice.

“Women in live-in relationships complain about sexual exploitation, domestic violence, abandonment after childbirth, and multiple abortions, but the lack of proper law has denied them justice,” she says.

Kalpana Sharma knows firsthand the hopelessness that a lack of legal protection can bring.

Sharma, 27, lives in Jhapa, a district in eastern Nepal. She was in a live-in relationship with a man from 2007 to 2012.

“Two months after we started living together, he stopped paying the rent,” she says. “Instead he also took 500,000 rupees ($4,940) that I had saved.”

Sharma’s partner used to rape her regularly, she alleges. He had other sexual relationships while living with her.

During their time together, he pressured her to have two abortions, she says.

In 2012, Sharma went to the local police station to lodge a complaint, but the police couldn’t help her, she says. She had no evidence that they had been living together, such as witnesses, photographs or documentary proof.

“He had already erased all our photos and SMSes,” Sharma says. “He refused to recognize me in front of the police. Now how can I get justice?”

A 2011 survey on live-in relationships conducted by the National Women Commission revealed that most men do not plan to marry their domestic partners.

Only 20 percent of the male survey respondents said they entered into live-in relationships with the intention of marrying their partners; the other 80 percent chose the only other option offered in the survey, saying they entered such relationships for sexual gratification. (The question was not asked of female respondents.)

But not all men in live-in relationships are seeking to exploit women.

Anil Parajuli, 25, a second-year university student, has been in a live-in relationship since July 2014. Living together fulfills his sexual needs and helps him reduce his living expenses, he says.

“We will get married once our future is financially secure,” he says. “We will not betray each other.”

His girlfriend, Ritu Paudel, 23, confirms that they plan to get married someday.

In the meantime, she keeps the arrangement a secret.

“If he changes his mind, I will not be able to show my face to society,” Paudel says. “If people find out about my relationship, no one will get married to me.”

Several of their friends are in similar relationships, Parajuli says. They all hide their living arrangements from their parents.

Armed with the findings of the 2011 survey and other data on domestic violence, the National Women Commission is seeking to convince government ministries of the need to protect the rights of women in live-in relationships.

The commission recommends that the law define two people as married if they live together for one year, Chandtara says. If someone were abused while living with a common-law spouse, the crime would be punishable under the Domestic Violence Act.

But government officials say it is difficult to create laws recognizing de facto partnerships because the practice is taboo.

“Social acceptance is necessary before such a law is promulgated because it is a matter having wider social implications,” says Narhari Acharya, minister of Law, Justice, Constituent Assembly and Parliamentary Affairs.

This acceptance can be achieved only by changing the mind-set of the people, which can take a long time, Acharya says.

The commission made its recommendation to parliament in 2013, Chandtara says. Legislators have not adopted such a law.

But Acharya says parliament will consider the recommendations.

“The parliament is busy in drafting the new constitution,” he says. “Therefore, they have not been able to give it due attention. Within a few months, we will hold a discussion and pass a bill regarding it.”

For women like Limbu, such a law is urgently needed.

She doesn’t dare lodge a criminal complaint for fear her neighbors will discover the relationship she was in, she says. She doesn’t even know where to go or whom to consult to seek justice.

“If I had not left my village, I would not have landed in this situation,” she says. “I destroyed my life by living with a man without thoroughly knowing him and hiding the relationship from everyone.”



GPJ translator Rachana Upadhyaya translated this story from Nepali.