October 17, 2013
KATHMANDU, NEPAL – From the outside, the house looks perfect. The four-story building has an ornately carved main door, a car and motorcycle parked in the garage, and a lush, manicured lawn with seasonal flowers in earthen pots.
At first impression, Pabitra K.C., the 34-year-old housewife who lives here, seems to be a lucky woman living a comfortable, upper-middle-class life on the outskirts of Kathmandu, the sprawling capital of Nepal.
“This house has everything physically,” she says. “But it lacks the basic human touch of love, recognition and care. How can I call it a home?”
K.C. looks tired and thin. Her husband’s family, whom she lives with, does not respect her, she says.
“I have to do all the household chores from morning to evening all by myself,” she says. “The work burden, unkind behavior of the family members – including my husband’s beatings – have made me physically and mentally weak.”
Ten years ago, K.C. met her future husband at a relative’s dinner party, she says. Soon, they got married with their parents’ consent. But her parents could not afford her dowry – a gift that the bride’s family traditionally gives to the groom’s family.
“My parents were not rich enough to provide dowry and the expensive gifts generally given as a cultural practice to the near-relatives of my husband,” she says. “Gradually, humiliation heaped on me started increasing, and nobody at home liked anything I did.”
The humiliation escalated to physical abuse.
“I had married with a vow to live together forever,” K.C. says. “But as I couldn’t bring dowry as demanded, I started facing violence at home.”
She did not tell her parents about her suffering because she had chosen her own spouse, she says, which remains taboo in Nepalese culture. She thought that if she tolerated the situation with patience and tried harder to win her husband’s heart, things would improve.
Within the first five years of her marriage, she gave birth to two daughters, she says. Her husband started coming home late, drunk and high on marijuana. In a culture that values sons, he blamed her for giving birth to only daughters and thrashed her often if she was not ready for sex.
In addition to hitting her, he also abuses her verbally and emotionally, she says. She has now endured this abuse for a decade.
But K.C. has neither told her parents, nor dared to report her husband to the police, she says. She has not even answered her neighbors’ inquiries about the loud screams they often hear.
She visited the local police station twice, she says. But she did not file a report because she worried about what would happen to her reputation and where she would go if she had to leave her home. She also did not want her husband’s family to stop supporting her 6- and 8-year-old daughters.
“However they treat me, they have at least enrolled my daughters to a good school, and I have received food and clothes,” she says. “If I lodge a formal complaint to the authorities, I may be expelled from home, and my daughters’ future will be ruined. Therefore, I am enduring everything.”
Although Nepal’s culture of silence around domestic violence permeates all levels of its economic strata, middle- and upper-class women are particularly reluctant to report abuse to the police because they fear losing their social or financial security. The emphasis on reconciliation in governmental and nongovernmental shelters, police stations and courts further discourages women from speaking up about abuse at home, experts say. The government is working to raise public awareness, but advocates call for more sensitization to eradicate acceptance of domestic violence.
The 2009 Domestic Violence (Offence and Punishment) Act prohibits domestic violence and incitement to violence in Nepal.
Yet more than 30 percent of women ages 15 and 49 had suffered some form of physical, emotional or sexual violence by their current or former spouses, according to the Nepal Demographic and Health Survey 2011.
“After marriage, most men think they have a right to dominate their wives,” says Shashi Adhikari, the chairwoman of Legal Aid & Consultancy Center, where between 10 and 15 women come for information and counseling each week.
The penalty for domestic violence is a fine between 3,000 rupees ($30) and 25,000 rupees ($250) or imprisonment for three to six months based on the severity of the crime, says Khadga Bahadur Rana, undersecretary at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, in a phone interview.
But the majority of Nepalese women rarely talk about the abuse they face. Nearly 80 percent of women ages 15 to 49 who had ever experienced physical or sexual violence had never sought help, according to the 2011 Nepal Demographic and Health Survey.
A patriarchal social system discourages women of all social classes from reporting abuse to police, Adhikari says.
“Most of the girls are raised by the family to practice tolerance in silence,” she says.
Nearly 2,270 women visited the National Women Commission between July 2012 and July 2013 to report domestic violence complaints, says Saraj Raj Thapa, a legal expert at the government-established commission. But this is much lower than the number of women who suffer abuse.
The commission serves as a place for women to seek help for domestic violence without involving the police, says Urmila Devi Bishwokarma, a member of the commission. The commission can legally investigate a case and make recommendations to authorities, but it cannot perform arrests.
The Women and Children Service Center of the Nepal Police registered 2,250 domestic violence complaints from July 2011 to July 2012, says Bimala Thapa, deputy inspector general of police. This is on par with the number of women who report abuse at the commission annually.
Although women from across the social spectrum endure violence at the hands of their partners, women from the middle- and upper-income groups may be more reluctant to report the abuse than women from lower-income groups are.
There is no exact definition of “upper class” or “middle class” in Nepal, but the classification derives from wealth, says Chirinjibi Nepal, chief economic adviser at the Ministry of Finance, in a phone interview.
Sharmila Malla, 31, who belongs to the upper-middle class, recounts a recent beating by her husband.
“My husband lost some money from his purse last night,” she says. “I was beaten hard for that. My body is still aching, and I can hardly move my body.”
This was not the first time that her husband beat her, she says. He also abuses her verbally and emotionally.
Malla entered her arranged marriage when she was 20 and now lives with her in-laws in an extended family of 12 members. They also verbally and emotionally abuse her because they say her dowry was insufficient and she is not a good cook.
Her in-laws also do not financially support her and her children, she says. So five years ago, she started a fabric and clothing shop just outside Kathmandu using funds her parents had given her. With her 4-year-old daughter in her lap at her store, she wipes her eyes with the fringe of her shawl and fakes smiles to customers.
“When I asked for money, I was told to beg from my parents,” she says. “But now, with the little income from my shop, I can buy things for my kids to their liking.”
She cannot afford a separate home, though, so she has not taken any legal action against her husband and his family.
“I strongly feel sometimes to report to the police about the violence meted out on me and get the family members punished,” she says. “But I can’t do so, as I do not have any other place to take my children to and also due to the fear of social stigma.”
Women from upper- and middle-class families are more likely to keep quiet about domestic violence than women from lower-income families are because of the social stigma attached to going public, says Jyotshna Shrestha, treasurer of Nagarik Aawaz, a peace and social justice organization that works on domestic violence issues.
Additionally, there is a notion in wealthier families that only poor women would involve the police in domestic problems, Shrestha says. Upper- and middle-class women also risk losing the financial support of their husbands’ families, which is not an issue that women from lower-income groups must often weigh.
“Money, social positions and political power can easily influence the justice system,” Shrestha also says, “and as such, there is no guarantee that the victims will win the case.”
Women from higher income groups visit the Forum for Women, Law and Development for counseling and advice when they can no longer tolerate the violence, says Sushma Gautam, an advocate who works at the forum.
“But they simply inquire about the legal provisions with the request to maintain confidentiality,” she says.
They usually do not file formal complaints with the police, she says. Some women even refuse to come to the forum in person and instead call for information to remain anonymous.
Women from upper- and middle-class families fear the upheaval of stable lives if they make formal reports, says Saraj Raj Thapa of the National Women Commission.
“Reporting to the police may jeopardize the future of both the mother and her children,” he says.
Filing a police report often sparks radical changes in the woman’s social and financial circumstances.
“After the formal reporting, the life of the victim undergoes changes, and she has to start altogether a new life, which is quite an ordeal,” he says.
Women who are accustomed to secure living conditions may be more afraid of ending up on the street, says Adhikari of the Legal Aid & Consultancy Center. They may also be vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse from strangers if they flee or their families throw them out.
When women do come to the commission to discuss abuse, it tries to counsel family members to reconcile, Saraj Raj Thapa says. When it is impossible to make an agreement between the parties, the commission files the case with police.
The Nepal Police also promotes counseling and reconciliation between the two parties, even if the person who was abused has documentary evidence of that abuse, says Narayan Regmi, subinspector at the Kathmandu district police office.
But the emphasis on reconciliation is both misguided and dangerous, Shrestha says. Although some women with pending legal cases receive shelter at various nongovernmental organizations, the court verdict many times forces them to reconcile with their husbands and in-laws. This may lead to an increase in violence.
The government of Nepal has opened 15 shelters in Nepal where women who report domestic and gender-based violence can also stay while the courts handle their cases, Rana says. The shelters aim to reintegrate the women back into their families within 30 to 45 days of reporting the cases.
These shelters and the courts also usually promote reconciliation, Adhikari says. These policies can put women back in harm’s way without making meaningful changes in their domestic situations, especially in wealthy families who want to keep up appearances.
“Many such cases of violence are hushed up and handled, and the couples are asked to reconcile themselves,” she says.
Women who believe they will have to continue to live in the same homes with their abusers are unlikely to lodge official reports, Saraj Raj Thapa says.
The government is trying to raise awareness about the issue through local meetings and trainings, he says.
To reduce the incidents of violence against women of all economic classes, the National Women Commission targets five districts each year to collaborate with the civil society, media, nongovernmental organizations and others in carrying out awareness campaigns, Bishwokarma says.
“But the sad thing is that very few targeted women attend our programs,” she says.
Advocates should focus on changing attitudes in society so that families are less tolerant of violence at home and create more women-friendly environments, Adhikari says.
These efforts may come too late for Malla, who says she will continue to tolerate her husband’s physical abuse until it gets much worse.
“But if I face severe beatings and even bodily mutilations, I will be forced to report the case,” she says.
And K.C. remains fatalistic about her situation.
“This is what I have been cursed to face,” she says.
GPJ translated this article from Nepali. No sources in the article are related.