Shalini Kumari, 15, was coming home from a wedding when she saw a man waiting at her gate. Before she could resist, he had tied her shawl around her mouth and dragged her to the fields behind her house. Her muffled screams were drowned out by the music of the nearby wedding.
Her parents were away, and there was no one to rescue her. But such is the stigma of rape in Nepali society that, like many others, Shalini was forced to agree to marry the rapist. In addition, her father had to pay a dowry demand of Rs 500,000. He was landless, and Shailini’s grandfather sold his farm in Morang to be able to afford it.
“How could I say no to the decision of respected elders?” says Shalini, who was saved from the marriage after her rapist and his family ran away on the eve of the wedding, after which the case was brought to the notice of social activists. They helped her register a police complaint and brought her to the ChoraChori shelter in Kathmandu.
Shalini’s case is just one in a dramatic increase in reported rape cases throughout Nepal in the past decade. Police records show that instances of rape and attempted rape have grown almost four fold (see chart below) since 2008. Alarmingly, more than half of them are minors.
“Children and handicapped women are more at risk, because they are more vulnerable,” says Bimala Khadka at the Women’s Commission. “Minors are more at risk because they don’t realise what is happening, cannot resist, and may be easily convinced or threatened to keep quiet.”
Khadka says there is abuse in child-protection centres or shelters, where lonely children may take physical intimacy as a sign of affection, and do not realise that they are being abused.
A breakdown of the Police rape data reveals disturbing clusters in the Tarai: with districts like Morang, Jhapa, Rupandehi, Sunsari, Banke, Chitwan, and Dang recording the most cases of reported rape and attempted rape. Mountain districts Jumla and Humla reported no cases at all last year. (See map)
After the 2015 earthquake destroyed 700,000 homes, districts worst affected by the earthquake recorded a spike in reported rape. Young women and girls living in temporary shelters are more at risk from predators in the neighbourhood, or even family members. Last year, Dhading recorded 31 cases of rape and attempted rape. Gorkha, Kavre and Sindhupalchok had 29 cases each.
Nepal’s conservative society often faults the victims: saying young women wear scanty outfits or stay out late. Changing modern value systems are blamed. However, the fact that so many are young rural women, minors, or even infants who are abused disprove this argument. Recently, ChoraChori documented the case of an eight-month-old baby raped by her father. Police figures show that females in all age groups have been assaulted, from infants to grandmothers. One in every five victims is a child below 10.
Many also point to easy access to pornography through the Internet as a cause. And while it has created new forms of abuse, from child pornography to blackmail, the basic nature of rape remains the same: nearly half of them happen behind closed doors at homes, and 80% of offenders are known to their victims.
It is entrenched patriarchy that encourages rape, explains gender studies professor Chandra Bhadra. “Rape happens when men feel entitled to women’s bodies, when they feel they have the right to violate it. Our social and legal systems encourage such behaviour by protecting impunity,” she says.
In the case of Shalini Kumari in Morang, the social and legal system converged in the local milieu, where male elders decided she marry the offender to keep the peace in the village. The family, because of its lower class and caste, was forced to agree.
The rise in cases like this would have been buried in social ‘compromises’ had it not been for activists working with the Women’s Cell in police stations, volunteers from shelters like ChoraChori, and the helpline of the Women’s Commission. Since it was hooked up six months ago, the helpline has received over 25,000 calls, and registered 436 cases. Previously, the Commisison used to only get about 350 complaints a year.
Shailesh Thapa Chhetri of the Nepal Police agrees that the reports have only brought to the surface what was always there. “Rape is not new in society. But due to the social stigma attached to it, few people ever spoke about it openly, let alone complain to the police,” says Chhetri. “But now the awareness of legal options is rising and reporting has increased.”
The police now even get rape complaints from closely-knit communities who rarely went to them before, like the Musahar in eastern Tarai. However, even though families are more aware of legal remedy, justice is still a distant dream. The statutory limit to report rape used to be 35 days, and an amendment in 2015 increased it to 6 months. But even that does not help victims because they take years to open up about traumatic abuses.
Survivors also face intrusive and cursory medical tests that look for physical injuries, and if such signs are absent, risk losing credibility. “This is called rape stereotyping, and often happens to adolescents,” explains Binita Pandey at the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC). “Adolescents may be lured into intercourse with the promise of marriage, which is considered rape by law. But lawyers and defendanats try to claim the opposite if there is delay in reporting, or if the victim did not protest during the act.”
While the laws concerning rape have become progressively broader in Nepal, such nuances of the victim’s side of the story are still ignored. According to the Supreme Court’s annual report 2016/17, district and high courts gave verdicts on only 60% of rape cases, and it was only 8% at the Supreme Court, leaving victims with little hope for justice.
Even if a decision is reached, perpetrators often walk free. According to reports from the Office of the Attorney General, in 2015/16 only 44% of offenders were convicted among the cases closed, and the rest were either acquitted or the cases withdrawn. This means only around 20-25% of rape victims in the districts who file a complaint can hope for justice, and the figure is only 6% at the central level. The lack of justice for rape, and its social stigma combine to breed impunity.
“The laws may be strong but the implementation is so weak that offenders know they can get away with it,” says Chandra Bhadra. “To really deter rapists, we need naming and shaming, and physical punishment like chemical castration.”
There was hope that education, economic prosperity, and empowerment would automatically reduce violence against women. However, as women become more educated and aware, they tolerate less abuse and some end up suffering a male backlash. An example is Muna Adhikari, who despite being deputy mayor of Godavari, became a victim of domestic violence herself recently.
Says Bhadra: “Through education, we need to also bring men into the fold and make them aware, too. Only then can we hope that violence against women will go down.”
Back at the ChoraChori shelter, Shalini Kumari is tearful as she tells us that there is no one now to take care of her ill mother back in the village.
She is doubtful about ever getting justice. Yet, through her sobs, she tells a visitor: “I want him to rot in jail forever.”
Some names have been changed.
A case of cash and caste
Activist Saraswati Nepali (pictured, right) was recently awarded the ‘Darnal Award for Social Justice’ in recognition of her contribution to justice for the Dalit community. Among her many cases was the conviction of a rapist for the multiple rapes of a 14-year-old with mental disability.
Durgadutta Bhatta, 57, used to rape her frequently and offer her chocolates afterwards, sometimes also threaten her. Her family found out only when she got pregnant, and Bhatta had given her abortion pills. Excessive bleeding led her mother to track down the perpetrator. Bhatta first offered money to keep her quiet, then spread rumours that she was pimping for her daughter.
Recalls Saraswati Nepali: “There was no one to speak for the girl at the police station, none of the lawyers wanted to take her statement because she was a Dalit and the accused was a rich and powerful person.”
Kumari’s parents were former Haliya, or bonded laborers, and make a living by daily wage labour.
The crime highlighted many factors that make girls and women more vulnerable: caste, class, minors, disadvantaged groups, and people with disabilities.
Even though only one in every five rapists are convicted, Bhatta was sentenced to 11 years in prison. But social justice is something else: the girl quit school, rarely leaves home, does not talk to anyone, and is mortally scared of men.