September 10, 2012
KATHMANDU, NEPAL – “What had my little son and myself done that my husband brought home a second wife?” asks a frail-looking Janaki Adhikari.
Her eyes well up with tears.
“Yes, I then divorced him and raised my son on my own,” she says. “He is now 15 years old.”
Adhikari, 36, moved out of her ex-husband’s home in 1997 after he brought home a second wife. But she divorced her husband just four years ago because she had been hoping he would have a change of heart and ask her to come home.
Women’s rights advocates say that a rise in awareness among women of their rights in recent years has helped them to combat the social stigma traditionally attached to them for filing for divorce.
Currently living with her son in Kathmandu, the capital, Adhikari hails from Tanahu district in Nepal’s Western region. Her ex-husband’s home is there, located a half hour from her parents’ home.
Adhikari says that she fell in love with her ex-husband, Hari Thapa, in the seventh grade. They walked to and from school together every day.
“If I hadn’t fallen in love then, maybe my life wouldn’t have been this difficult today,” she says. “I would have been happy. What to do? I wasn’t wise enough.”
In the 10th grade, Thapa asked her to elope. The eldest in his family, he felt pressured to get married because his mother was frequently falling sick and the family needed a woman to do the household chores.
He couldn’t go to Adhikari’s parents to ask to officially marry her. She belonged to the Brahmin caste, the highest in the caste system, and Thapa belonged to the Chettri caste, a second-class caste in the hierarchy of the four-class tier. Also, she was only 16, two years below the legal marrying age.
Though reluctant at first, Adhikari agreed and eloped with Thapa in the tourist town of Pokhara. Thapa had threatened Adhikari that he would tattoo her name on his wrist and commit suicide if she didn’t marry him.
“I was 16 years old when I eloped with him in March of 1992 because I wasn’t wise enough,” she says. “And today, I’m alone and have to look after my son by myself.”
Adhikari’s family didn’t accept the relationship, even after the marriage. She discontinued her education and settled at her husband’s family’s house according to tradition, helping them with the household chores and farming.
But she says that soon her in-laws began to mentally torment her for eloping and thus avoiding paying a dowry, money and gifts that the bride’s family must give to the groom’s family on the occasion of a wedding. But Thapa consoled her and tried to make her happy.
She says this changed five years later, though, in 1997 after the couple had their son. Thapa started to spend nights outside the house, and when Adhikari inquired why, he shouted at her and sometimes even physically abused her.
When their son was 9 months old, Thapa brought home a woman and asked his mother to invite her into the house, a tradition performed after marriage in which the mother-in-law officially welcomes the bride into the home.
“I was scared,” Adhikari says.
When her mother-in-law invited the other woman into their house, symbolizing the family’s acceptance of her, Adhikari went to her husband to seek answers. She told him that she would leave the house, and he told her do whatever she wanted. But she had nowhere to go.
“I couldn’t even go to my maternal house because I got married against their will,” she says.
She says that was when she decided to commit suicide. She took her son to her high school friend’s house with the intention of leaving him there and committing suicide. But her friend called Adhikari’s siblings, who consoled her and told her that suicide wouldn’t solve any problems. They told her that she should live for her son.
She stayed at her maternal parents’ house for the next four years. She says that Thapa never visited her or their son or inquired about their well-being. That’s when she decided to move to Kathmandu. Her son was 5 years old then.
After moving to the capital, Adhikari rented a room and started selling fruit on the roadside. She used the income from her business to pay rent and buy groceries. Her son attended the local public school. Using her income and savings, she says she has been able to educate her son up to the seventh grade.
Looking for more prospects and profits, sometimes Adhikari ventures into the neighboring areas to sell fruit. She says her daily income varies from 800 rupees ($10) during festival seasons, when fruits are in demand, to 100 rupees to 200 rupees ($1.20 to $2.40) on a bad day.
Legally, her ex-husband is responsible for providing financial support for their son. But she says she didn’t seek compensation during the divorce process because he belongs to a lower caste. Instead, she asks her parents when she is in dire need.
In Nepal, polygamy is also illegal. But Adhikari says she did not file a polygamy complaint against her ex-husband.
“I didn’t know that one day, the person who loved me and married me without my family’s permission would do something like this and bring a second wife home,” Adhikari says.
With more awareness of legal rights and less attention paid to social stigma, a rising number of women are filing for divorce in Nepal. Women cite various reasons for ending their marriages, from adultery to abuse. Discrimination against women has been removed from divorce law over the years, and the legal filing process is now easier for women than men. But socially, the divorce process is wrought with challenges for women, as society tends to blame them for failed marriages.
Divorce became legal in Nepal in 1963 under the Country Code, says Meera Dhungana, a lawyer for Forum for Women, Law and Development, a nongovernmental human rights organization.
According to Nepal’s 2001 census, the total number of people who had divorced here was 20,775. Though the census takes place every 10 years, the results of the 2011 census haven’t been published yet to determine whether this trend has increased or decreased. But available court data illustrates a rapid increase in divorce over the last several years.
Bharat Lamsal, undersectary of the Kathmandu District Court, says that the number of divorces has soared in the capital.
“Looking at the data from 2005 until April 2012, we can see that the number of divorces has gone up,” Lamsal says. “The numbers have doubled.”
The number of cases filed in 2005 to 2006 was 640, he says. From 2010 to 2011, there were 1,317 cases filed. Out of the 1,317 cases, verdicts have been reached in 75 percent of the cases, while 25 percent have yet to be finalized.
He attributes the rise to the developments in access to education in the country, which has led to more public awareness about rights. Various awareness programs run by the government and nongovernmental organizations have also taught people to not accept domination, to fight for one’s right and to not accept oppression – even within the family.
Dhungana of the Forum for Women Law and Development says the number of women seeking divorces has especially surged. She says that the law has empowered them to exercise this right.
The original law in 1963 legalized divorce if spouses resided at separate locations for a period of at least three years, if one spouse engaged in a conspiracy against the life of the other or committed a crime of serious physical assault against the other, or if a spouse engaged in extramarital sexual affairs or eloped with another person, Lamsal says.
The 11th Amendment to the Country Code in 2002 legalized divorce for cases in which a spouse has an incurable sexually transmitted disease, suffers from incurable mental disability, is incapable of movement, suffers from blindness in both eyes, if the spouses live separately and if the wife isn’t able to bear any children because of a medical condition confirmed by a government-recognized medical board, Lamsal says. The updated law also gave women the right to property after divorce.
But institutional biases and socially discriminatory practices many times block women from exercising this right to property after divorce, according to a 2011 shadow report on the Nepali government’s fourth and fifth periodic reports on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which was coordinated by the Forum for Women, Law and Development.
In 2006, the Supreme Court struck down a law allowing men to divorce women on the grounds of infertility. The Gender Equality Act of 2006 also addresses discriminatory laws governing divorce.
The Civil Code Bill, introduced in 2011, aims to make marital rape legal grounds for divorce.
As women become more aware of these changes, they are less likely to stay in marriages in which they feel disrespected.
Dhungana says that sometimes men in Nepal woo women and other times pressure them to elope and get married. She says this type of control frequently continues in the marriage.
“A woman has to go to a man’s house after marriage,” she says. “Even after that, there are instances of physical and mental abuses. Also, when a wife can’t bear a son, the husband brings home a second wife. This forces some women to seek for a divorce.”
She says this has become common.
“Apart from physical and mental tortures from the husband, bringing home a second wife has become normal in Nepali society,” Dhungana says. “The composition of Nepali society is as such that a man is always the leader in the family.”
Dhungana, who has been make strides over the years for women’s rights in court, says that Nepali society is highly male-dominated, making men think they can do anything. When some men are sexually dissatisfied by their wives or can’t have physical relations with them during or after pregnancies, they either have extramarital affairs or remarry. Others torture their wives, creating another reason to file for divorce.
Dhungana says that if there were shelters for men to receive counseling on such behaviors, the divorce rate might go down.
But in Nepal, there is a lack of organizations that specifically offer counseling on marital issues. Some nongovernmental organizations and law firms try to counsel couples to make divorce the last option.
Rupa Gautam, a 41-year-old woman from Lalitpur district, filed for a divorce from her husband, Bhupendra Gautam, a year ago. They had been married for 19 years and have three daughters, ages 6, 9 and 13.
Gautam says that her husband came home drunk regularly and tormented her for not giving birth to a son. Unable to bear this physical and psychological abuse, Gautam consulted her maternal family and decided to file for divorce along with financial compensation.
Dhungana says that Nepal's law guarantees women who file for divorce the right to compensation from their husbands.
Gautam currently works in a private office as an assistant to support her daughters. Her estranged husband is already married to another woman – before their divorce is even complete.
If a person remarries before he or she is divorced, he or she is liable for one to three years in prison and a fine of 5,000 rupees to 25,000 rupees ($60 to $300), according to Nepali law.
Chandra Tiwari, section officer at the Supreme Court of Nepal, says that although Nepal has laws, they do not do justice for women.
“Nepal’s law and the Supreme Court, though has been working when it comes to women-related decisions, they’re not complete,” he says.
Tiwari says cultural norms still many times outweigh the law.
“Even in this 21st century, women still have to be a victim of domestic abuse and are forced to stay as single women [after divorce],” he says, referring to cultural norms. “The Nepal government and the concerned authorities should take this matter seriously.”
Himal Belbase, deputy registrar at the Supreme Court, says that it’s easy for women to file for a divorce in Nepal.
“Nepal’s law is pro-woman up to a certain extent,” he says.
Belbase says this is because of the different procedures men and women need to follow to file for divorce.
“A woman, if she wants a divorce, can file her case directly to the district court and the Supreme Court,” she says. “But for men, they have to go through their local village development committee or their municipal office and then to the court.”
But although it is easier for women to file legally, socially it’s not easier for them. Despite what the law says, many acknowledge that society looks down upon divorce and in most cases blames the women for failed marriages, citing reasons such as her inability to handle her husband or a problem she must have.
Reflecting on the impact of divorce on children, Belbase says that all children have the right to be together with both of their parents. But many children are denied this privilege after their parents divorce.
“I don’t even know what a father’s love is like,” says Prakash, Adhikari's son. “I don’t even remember his face. I wish my mother and father lived together. But he doesn’t love us.”
Adhikari, on the other hand, doesn’t fault her ex-husband.
“Maybe this is because I didn’t care about my family then and gave them a lot of trouble,” she says, referring to her elopement. “So I don’t blame anybody for my situation today other than myself.”