Ramilla Thapa, 19, works in a cabin restaurant in Kathmandu. Earlier, she used to live in Chitwan, a city near Kathmandu. Her father had two wives and she was the youngest of the three children from his first wife. Thapa was married at 14 and says she didn't get any affection from her husband or in-laws. Not long after, her husband married a second time, on the pretext that Thapa was illiterate and did not bring any dowry. Thapa did not accept her husband's second wife and when her husband insisted that both women live under the same roof, she left and came to Kathmandu.
At the cabin restaurant, Thapa is forced to do all kinds of chores. At times she is compelled to entertain customers: if she resists their sexual overtures, she stands to lose her job. Women working in cabin restaurants are often called the 'entertainment' girls of the valley.
According to a survey conducted by NGO Meeth (friend) in 2003, most women working in cabin restaurants come from Nepal's far-flung and poor districts. Poverty, Maoist-led violence and domestic violence force them to come to Kathmandu.
Sharmilla Adhikari, 22, came to Kathmandu from a village nearby. When she was very young, she was forced to marry her brother-in-law because her sister was unable to bear him a son. However, within a few months of marriage, Adhikari's sister gave birth to a boy. Later, at her sister and brother-in-law's insistence, Adhikari was forced to marry another man who was already married. Her second marriage was equally bad. She gave birth to two children and her husband barely provided for them. Adhikari came to Kathmandu recently and works as a part-time maid in a few homes. Sometimes, when she is very desperate, she also sells sex.
There are many women in Kathmandu who flee their homes because they don't accept polygamy. Bandana Rana, President of Sancharika Samuha, a forum for women journalists and NGOs, says in most polygamous arrangements, the less favored wife (usually the first one) gets tortured or abused. Polygamy is more common among lower and lower middle-class families; women are not able to come out of such marriages as they lack a support system and skills to survive on their own, says Rana. Most continue to suffer the humiliation and violence that is common in such situations. Those who try to escape the abusive marriage and start working in cabin restaurants, and sometimes casinos, are financially and sexually exploited.
According to Census 2001, 559,250 women (out of a total of 11.38 million women) are living in polygamy in Nepal. A 2001 study, `Psycho-Social Impacts of Violence Against Women and Girls with Special Reference on Rape, Incest and Polygamy', done by Saathi, an NGO, indicates that violence is common in polygamous families. The main cause for violence is ill-treatment of the less favored wife/wives, not only by the husband but also by other family members and also by the children of the favored wife/wives, said the study.
Although Article 9 of the Nepalese Legal Code prohibits polygamy (since 1963), the law allows a man to take another wife even when the first one is alive under special conditions. These are: When the wife is suffering from a venereal disease which is incurable; is insane; paralyzed; goes blind; has failed to give birth within the first 10 years of marriage; and in case she agrees to live separately after taking her share of the property. Women's groups say these conditions actually encourage polygamy. Besides, women are not allowed to divorce their husbands under similar conditions.
According to the Saathi study, among the 100 women who were in polygamous relationships, 42 did not know polygamy was illegal. Only 27 per cent of the women who knew about the law went to the police. Those who didn't report said they knew they had no choice but to live with their husbands, and they were advised by their relatives and neighbors to maintain peace and harmony in the family. Over 24 per cent of the respondents said that the law is useless and seeking justice is a waste of time and money.
Although in recent years, the Supreme Court has given some progressive judgments, the judges are reluctant to change the defective law which makes women more vulnerable in marriage. UNDP's Human Development Report (South Asia, 2000) stated that the state institutions lack both the sensitivity and the capacity to deal with gender-specific violence. Law enforcement seldom comes into action to aid women victims and judicial pronouncements have frequently reflected biases that indicate the strong influence of prevalent social attitudes, says the report.
Despite the violence women suffer in their marriages, Nepal government has not built any shelter homes or rehabilitation centers for women in the country.
Shanta Thapaliya, President of the Legal Aid and Consultancy Centre and a well-known women lawyer/activist, says that polygamy cases are rarely reported. When they are reported, women try to claim their share of property from the husband and decide to live on their own without seeking a legal divorce. Thapaliya says that if the husband does not possess enough property, then the wife settles for a claim for maintenance.
Although, according to the law, the guilty can be jailed for one to three years and/or forced to pay Nepali Rs 25,000 (1US$=Rs 74), the women don't want to see their husbands in jail as most are dependent on them for their survival. Some women, aware of the loopholes in the law, prefer to keep quiet because they know they will never get justice, says Thapaliya.
Gauri Maya, sub-inspector at the Women's Police Cell in Kathmandu, says that since 2003, only 44 cases of polygamy have been reported in Nepal; and of these, eight are from Kathmandu. Women usually want the police to settle their cases without registering them, she says.
Besides poor law enforcement, polygamy is prevalent due to the low status of women in Nepal. The legal marriage age for girls (with parental consent) is 18, but many are married at a younger age. An unmarried daughter must be at least 35 years old to claim a share of paternal property, while sons may do so at any age regardless of their marital status. The literacy rate for women in Nepal is 42 per cent. In recent years, research indicates that cultural norms, like bigamy and polygamy, physical and sexual abuse of women at home and gender and ethnic discrimination, are contributing factors for the rise in trafficking among women and children in Nepal.
At a time when the entire country is talking about peace-building and conflict resolution, issues that are crucial for women and for their peaceful existence also need to be urgently examined.