In Nepal, domestic violence is quite common. However, battered wives who have taken legal recourse are often compelled to think that living with an abusive husband is a more practical approach to life.
Punyashila Ghimire, a lawyer with Legal Aid and Counselling Centre (LACC), a Kathmandu-based NGO offering free legal assistance to women and children, has handled many cases of domestic violence. Of the horrific tales of abuse, one has been exceptionally outrageous. Ghimire recalls that the woman said, "My husband is fixated on a film star. He watches blue films and then orders me to have sex, whenever and wherever he wants. When we are in bed, he tapes the actress's photograph on to my face and pretends I am she. He is sick."
Despite the agony that her husband was subjecting her to, the woman wanted "a divorce on some other grounds" saying that she would "die of shame" if anyone learned the truth.
"Domestic violence is a way of life in Nepal," says Anita Sapkota Chapagain, a director at LACC. "We have a patriarchal society that prefers sons and regards women as inferior. This feeling prevails among the uneducated and poor as well as the rich and elite."
Six months ago, Nepalese tabloid 'Jana Aastha' had run a front-page story detailing how Princess Prerana, daughter of King Gyanendra, had been assaulted by her businessman-husband, Raj Bahadur Singh. However, the mainstream media in Nepal generally ignores such incidents, not because discussing the royal family is taboo, but because the issue of domestic violence is not unusual.
According to the Central Women's Cell of Nepal Police, 939 complaints of domestic violence were filed in the last financial year, ending June 15, 2006. This reflects an exponential increase in domestic violence cases - between 1998 and 2004, when only 3,505 cases were registered. However, these figures are just the tip of the iceberg because most victims are unable to file a case because of family pressures, social stigma and lack of financial independence.
Elaborating on the reasons behind domestic violence, Ghimire cites the demand for dowry, alcoholism and drug addiction, polygamy (if the wife does not bear a male child); and the viewing of pornographic channels and blue films as some of the causes.
A lack of effective laws is another significant cause. While rape carries a seven- year imprisonment in Nepal, marital rape carries a term of just three to six months. Recently, Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD), an NGO fighting against discriminatory laws, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) on behalf of a marital rape victim, challenging the law as discriminatory. In response, the Supreme Court issued a show-cause notice to the government, asking for an explanation within 15 days. Till date there has been no response from the government.
Political instability usually comes in the way of speedy justice. For a new, tougher law to be enacted, it has to be passed by Parliament. But Nepal's House remained dissolved from 2002 to early 2006. While it was eventually restored in April 2006, better laws for women were not part of the government's top priorities of peace negotiations and elections.
Even if stronger laws are passed, women's organizations point out that the issue of shelter and means to earn a livelihood still need to be tackled. Only one of the approximately 20 NGOs working for women's rights in the country runs shelters for women. Saathi operates a 15-bed centre in the capital and a 30-bed centre in Nepalgunj.
"It is not enough," admits Sulakshana Rana, administrative officer, Saathi. "We started out as a counseling centre. We realized victims needed a place to stay where they would be safe from abusive husbands. At Saathi, we can offer a maximum stay of six months." Besides counseling and legal aid, the organization provides vocational training and sometimes seed money to set up small businesses.
The biggest threat to victims, however, is their ingrained sense of dependency and fear of what acquaintances will say. "Most of the women who are battered, humiliated and even thrown out, want to go back to their husbands and families," Rana says. "Even after going through the motions of obtaining a divorce and starting a new life, their wistful response is, 'I wish I could go back to my husband.