Following the recent protests in India on violence against women and I wanted to share some stories of women that I visited in Nepal in 2008. I was working for a charity called Peace Direct and I visited a rehabilitation shelter on the border of Nepal and India run by a partner organisation called SAATHI for women affected by violence and abuse. This transit home housed around 20 at a time and the women were given support and taught practical work skills such as sewing in order to establish themselves financially. Over the ten days I spent in Nepalganj the women shared with me stories of dowry violence, gang rape, domestic violence, emotional abuse and attempted trafficking. I worked with a translator, Pushpanjali, a young lady from Nepalganj who introduced me to the women. The portraits I have included are of Hasroon Idirasi, a 23 year old victim of a dowry related burning, Pratikshya Oli, a 22 year old victim of gang rape and Dhanmaye Kc, an 18 year old woman who was intercepted on the border and rescued from being trafficked to India. These extracts are from a piece I wrote for the charity after my visit:
Hasroon Idirasi is 23 years of age and she has been recovering from her attack for nearly a year. On 6th November 2007 her husband and in-laws dowsed her in petrol and shut her in a toilet where her husband set fire to her. She was left screaming and burning until the neighbours were alerted and rang the police and ambulance. Once the emergency services arrived, Hasroon was rushed to hospital where she received treatment for severe burns. For her physical rehabilitation, she was hospitalised in Kathmandu for eight months and SAATHI donated a sum of Rs.10000 towards the medical treatment that she received there. For the last two months she has been in Nepalganj, with her young daughter and she is taking textile training here. Her husband is currently in prison awaiting trial for attempted murder.
Dowry deaths or ‘bride burning’ are the extreme example of domestic violence in Nepal and they account for roughly 5% of cases registered at SAATHI. Although this statistic seems pretty low, a woman is killed everyday in Nepal because of dowry payment. The figure given for this crime will always be inaccurate because many dowry deaths are disguised as suicides and many attacks are made to look like household accidents.
Apart from her very visible physical scars Hasroon seems positive. In fact none of the women staying here seem depressed despite the horrifying experiences which they have all been through, at least they seem happy to be where they are. The shelter itself has no frills attached: paint peels from the walls, the dorm rooms sleep five at a time, the communal areas are bare and there is nothing much in the garden except an old swing on which Hasroon plays happily with her daughter. This did lead me to ponder on what expectations women have of life here.
One of the saddest stories that I heard from all of the women staying in the shelter was the tale of Pratikshya Oli, a 22 year old who had only been at SAATHI for three days at the time of her interview. Pratikshya is married and has only one child after her son died nine months earlier. She was a victim of both mental and physical abuse at the hands of her husband so she took the brave and unusual step of separating from him and leaving her young daughter in his care. After their separation Pratikshya got work as a housemaid in a small village and she worked here for some time. One night she was forcibly taken into the jungle by a gang of men who turned on her in a vicious and violent attack. Each of the men raped her. After the attack she was left traumatised and in pain, alone and afraid in the dark, unfamiliar forest. She managed to make her way back into the village where she worked and put herself together enough to attempt to continue her work without raising any alarm. Unfortunately, Pratikshya’s employers heard about the attack and were so disgusted that they spurned her and forbade her from ever working for them again. Without a husband or anyone to turn to, she headed for the border in the hope that India may have more work to offer her. It was at the border crossing that she was stopped by counsellors working for SAATHI and was identified as a vulnerable single female who desperately needed help and support.
This case is a typical example of the social attitudes around rape and sexual abuse in Nepal. If a woman is violated then she will most often be blamed for provocation of some kind. Purity and virginity is sacred here and a woman is expected to abstain from any sexual conduct outside of marriage whether or not she consents. A huge problem with the issue of human trafficking in Asia is that if a woman is rescued from a brothel and returned to her home village she is likely to be rejected by both the community and her family – unless she returns with a lot of money. In general, society would view her as a ‘bad woman’: damaged goods, a dirty and promiscuous whore. The shame felt after a traumatic rape would be increased ten fold.
The total amount of sex workers in India is within the hundreds of thousands but there is no definite figure. Some estimates total over a million. The exact percentage of these who are Nepalese is also unclear, although it is without doubt a very a significant amount. Nepali women are popular because of their Mongolian features and petit frames. They are are easy targets due to the extreme poverty that many live in teamed with their lack of education. They are most often given false promises of marriage or work in India and jump at the chance for a better life. The girls are taken from their village under false pretences and deposited at the brothel, where the full weight of their predicament will slowly dawn on them. For most there is no chance of escape or a normal life in the future.
Any trafficked woman in Nepal will have been subjected to, not only one attack but a series of daily violations from which few have little chance of escaping, at least without HIV. To season a girl or woman for this work she is raped regularly for however long it takes for her to give up fighting against her attacker and accept clients. I cannot begin to imagine the horror of this world. It is really very sad that any poor woman escaping such terrifying conditions is treated with such contempt. Due to corruption both within the government and police forces very few preventative measures have been put in place to protect vulnerable women and little action is taken against brothels in operation. Indian and Nepalese nationals may pass between the two countries without a passport or visa and this makes it a lot harder to monitor the thousands of people passing through here everyday. Border police accept bribes from traffickers and many city police officers are regular clients at brothels and take protection money from owners to keep them in the clear. The women taken here to work have little previous knowledge about the sex-industry and often no context for it. It is hard for the girls to fully understand the situation that they are in and whether they themselves are criminals. Many believe that they have done something wrong even if they have been kidnapped, raped and abused so they do not cry for help. They are trapped here with no one to turn to. Brothel owners give their workers scripted responses to any kind of interrogation by NGO workers or journalists and they are on constant surveillance. Most of what they do earn is kept as payment towards the ‘debt bondage’ which is the amount of money that the woman was bought for that she is required to pay back to the brothel owner, with interest. Payment of this debt is usually indefinite. It is under these conditions that women are kept slaves to their captors.
Rescuing susceptible women from the border is a tactic employed by SAATHI to address human trafficking. There is a counselling cell at the crossing point here between India and Nepal and two women work at a time to keep watch for suspicious looking couples leaving the country. If any concern is aroused they intercept the pair and bring them into the cell for interrogation. Both the man and woman will have to answer detailed questions about how they know each other and where they are going. It should be clear from the information that they are given whether the girl is in any danger. If they think she is then she will be taken in for counselling and rehabilitation and the man will be handed over to the police. On average 100 women a year are rescued by SAATHI using these methods. I met a girl who had recently been stopped and taken in during one of my visits to the shelter. Aged only 18, Dhanmaye Kc was travelling with a man that she did not know particularly well but was familiar with as a frequent visitor to her village. She was in a desperate position as her husband had left her previously and she was without an income. The man promised her work across the border so she went in hope of finding something there. Dhanmaye was not aware of the danger of trafficking when she left for her trip, “I’m so glad I was rescued” she says now.
Increasing consumerism adopted from the west and an existing social framework of patriarchy are both to blame for the commodification of women in Nepal. This teamed with corruption and inertia within the government creates the conditions for these heinous crimes to be carried out without fear of retribution. Trafficking and dowry attacks are the extreme examples of violence against women. They illustrate scenarios where women aren’t valued as human beings and equal citizens but are seen in only in terms of their material value. On more of a street level, everyday prejudice permeates society and is something which is commonplace to all Nepali women. I asked Push whether she thought it possible for a Nepalese woman to live without discrimination or exploitation of some kind. “No” she answers quickly and without hesitation. She sees social norms and values as the biggest threat towards women here. “To better the social status of women there has to be a way through which they have access to education and more of a presence within politics, this will lead to material independence. Social norms and values create boundaries within which women have only limited prospects. If these boundaries are changed then violence against women could be decreased”.
This visit to Nepalganj totally altered my view of the East and of myself as a woman. I am now much more aware of the freedoms that I have always had and taken for granted: equal treatment and opportunities, being respected, protection by law and being able to exercise even my basic human rights. It is hard to contemplate the everyday struggle that women face, not just in Nepal but all throughout Asia and many other parts of the world. Discrimination and marginalisation are normal for many women and this leads to the horrifying incidents which I encountered on my trip.
Before leaving Nepal I attended a pre-Teej ladies evening held by Bhawani to celebrate the oncoming Teej festival in which women celebrate their husbands. This is a period of feasting, joyous dancing and celebration before a twenty four hour fast that is followed by a purification ritual to purge the woman of her sins. As I watch the red saris dance together it saddens me that it is these traditions themselves that are largely to blame for the inferior position of women here. An ancient Hindu scripture cited by Bhawani states “Where women are respected, there dwell the gods”. But what does this text mean today? “Unfortunately, the scripture has lost its value” Bhawani concludes.
To find out more about SAATHI and Peace Direct visit: http://www.peacedirect.org/