Stigma Fuels Marital Rape
As the warm winter sun blankets Kathmandu, people are making the most of it and soaking up its rays. But not Devaki Poudel, 39, who lives across the river from capital in the neighboring district of Lalitpur.
Inside an old, three-story house, Poudel, who requested her first name be changed for safety reasons, has been busy all morning. At 11 a.m., she has finished sending her children to school and husband to work and completed her household chores for the morning. She sits down with a sigh.
“Now, the entire day is mine,” media quoted as her saying.
Poudel comes from Syangja, 235 km west from Kathmandu. She is slender and has long, black hair. She wears red bangles and vermillion – a red powder – on her head, which are Hindu symbols of marriage. She dons a red sweater over her kurta surwal, a traditional dress.
Poudel’s nerves are visible. She has a sweet voice, but it seems it’s been suppressed.
“My husband doesn’t like me talking and socializing with others,” she says. “If he finds out that I’m talking to someone …”
She stops before completing her sentence.
Poudel and her family have been living in a rented apartment in Lalitpur for 15 years. Her husband works as a security guard at a private company. On the surface, they look like a happy family. But Poudel says that their home is far from harmonious.
Poudel got married when she was 15. Her parents didn’t allow her to go to school because they believed she would become a prostitute if she gained an education.
So they instead married her to 25-year-old Ramesh Poudel, whose first name has been changed to protect his identity, from a neighboring village. She says that her friends teased her for having a tall and handsome husband.
“But if only looks were everything,” she says.
Poudel says she had been used to living an independent life, but her marriage destroyed this freedom.
“From the second day of marriage, my life has been like hell,” Poudel says.
She says her husband began to fondle her private parts in ways that hurt her. He also forcefully had sexual intercourse with her. Marred by bruises and her husband’s teeth marks, her skin bore testament to the nightly scuffles. The abuse was so severe that it hurt her genitals, but she says she kept quiet about it.
“Sometimes, I use[d] to have fever because I couldn’t bear it,” she says. “But I couldn’t tell anyone.”
A few days after her wedding, Poudel says she went to her parents’ house and told her mother that she didn’t want to return to her husband’s home. But her mother told her that this would be wrong because women had to stay with their husbands, no matter how hard it was.
And life had become hard for Poudel. Following a tiring day of work at the farm and in the house, she says she wanted to enjoy a peaceful night. But despite her desire to rest, her husband forced her to have sex with him.
When Poudel tried to shout in pain, he closed her mouth. When she refused to have sex with him, he kicked and hit her.
“There was no option than to be living as a walking dead,” she says.
Even when she suffered pain during menstruation, he had anal sex with her. Three years after her marriage, she got pregnant with her first child. Even during pregnancy, she says he forced her to have sex with him.
“Even before a day earlier that the child was born, he didn’t spare me,” she says, with surprise spreading across her face. “How was I bearing that?”
She says that this is the first time she has told anyone about the abuse, which she has been enduring for nearly 25 years. She kept quiet to avoid embarrassing the family, as it is taboo to talk about sex in Nepali culture.
After having three kids and moving to Kathmandu, she says she thought her husband might show some restraint. But instead, the situation has intensified.
He began bringing home X-rated movies and forcing her to imitate the sexual acts performed in the videos with him. When she disagrees, he drags her down the stairs as punishment.
Poudel says that her neighbors and landlord have heard her crying, but she usually covers it up as a domestic dispute. Even when her sisters or relatives come to visit, they never discuss sex.
“How do I discuss bedroom matters with others?” she asks. “And at the end of the day, it’s me who has to suffer.”
Many wives in Nepal suffer from marital rape on a routine basis, which advocates against it cite as a consequence of the male-dominated culture here. The Nepali government amended the law against rape to include marital rape six years ago. Still, many women say they have never heard of the term “marital rape” or of the law against it because it is taboo to talk about sex.
But even when they become aware, uneducated and educated women alike decline to report their husbands because of this taboo, deeply ingrained notions of respect and economic factors. Some report the abuse instead as domestic violence, but police send most couples home after counseling at the police station and forward few cases to court.
Since the issue of marital rape is not discussed openly in Nepal, reliable statistics are unavailable.
There are currently about 110 men in Bhadra Prison in Kathmandu for rape, including nearly 40 with life sentences, according to data from the Central Prison. But none is there for marital rape.
Advocates against marital rape attribute it to poverty, illiteracy, backwardness and a male-dominated society.
Suchitra Mainali, a sociology professor at Padma Kanya Multiple College, the first women’s college in Nepal, says that Nepal is a male-dominated society, where women have often been suppressed.
“In every household, women have been bearing the brutality of marital rape,” Mainali says. “It seems like women have been used to bearing with such pain.”
Like Poudel, Phoolmaya Limbu, whose first name has been changed to protect her safety, says she has also long suffered from marital rape. Limbu, 49, is from Jhapa, a district in eastern Nepal.
Limbu got married 31 years ago at age 18. Although it was an arranged marriage, she says life was comfortable with her husband, who was 24.
But soon after her marriage, she started having children every year. She gave birth to seven children. Between parental duties and household chores, Limbu says it was difficult for her to satisfy her husband’s persistent sexual needs.
“Even while I was pregnant, he didn’t give me a moment of relief,” she says.
While she was giving birth to her last child 15 years ago, Limbu suffered a uterine prolapse, when the uterus slips down from its normal position, a common problem among Nepali women in rural areas. As she was in pain, Limbu says she requested her husband time and again to refrain from physical contact until she recovered.
“But he threatened to bring a second wife, and he just forced me to have sex,” she says.
Limbu says that when her uterus was coming out, it was extremely difficult and painful to have intercourse. There were times when she had to push her uterus inside her body with her hands.
“I didn’t tell this to anyone, and I had no idea that I had to go to a doctor for this,” she says.
It was only after advice from a neighbor five years later that she visited the maternity hospital in Kathmandu for a checkup. There, she saw many other women with uterine prolapses, which she says consoled her.