Frequent arguments I heard as a child between Saane, our tenant, and his wife still echo in my mind, even after 26 years.  I used to ask mom—”Why does Saane, the rickshaw-puller, have to drink and batter his wife almost every night?”

“Saane is an illiterate and poor man, that is why he does that,” used to be my mom’s response. I did not fully understand the answer as a 6-year-old. However, as an adult I can easily comprehend that a man battering his wife constitutes a major form of domestic violence, or if you like, ‘intimate partner violence’.

A preliminary study by Ranjeet and Purkayastha of intimate partner violence among Nepali women living in New York City conducted last year with a small sample size revealed that 54.1 percent of Nepali immigrant women were more likely to have emotional, psychological and physical abuse than immigrant women of other nationalities.

These Nepali women’s mobility was so restricted they weren’t even allowed to visit their friends’ houses, had limited access to family incomes, and in some cases they were even asked to hand over their paychecks to their husbands, with limited access to even their own bank accounts.  The women respondents of the study shared that at times, their partners even emotionally blackmailed by threatening to hurt their children.

The study depicts the sad reality that, despite suffering all these abuses, Nepali women do not seek support from South Asian organisations or other agencies working for women’s rights in the US. The study’s findings raise several questions about the vulnerabilities and rights of Nepali women immigrating to the US.

Likewise, Ranjeet and Purkayastha’s study of intimate partner violence against South Asian women explains why a majority of these women in the US accept intimate partner violence as a normal part of their marital life and choose to remain in abusive relationships. The findings were not surprising at all. In fact, they corroborate the outcomes of similar studies conducted in Nepal.

For instance, a study done a few years ago on the psycho-social impact of violence against women and girls with a special focus on rape, incest and polygamy in Nepal by Deuba and Rana suggests that intimate partner violence exists throughout our society, regardless of class and caste. These issues are mostly unchallenged and underreported. And, most women often want to remain in abusive relationships rather than bringing the case outside the family’s periphery.

The study findings, both from within and outside the country, indicate that intimate partner violence is socially accepted and regarded as a private family matter in our society regardless of the geographic location we live in.  Be it inside or outside the country, it seems that intimate partner violence in Nepali society is often dealt with in an quiet manner because of the social stigma attached to it and perhaps due to the costs that women have to bear once the case becomes public.

Nepal’s legislature and judiciary have recognised gender equality in terms of the right to privacy and protection against domestic violence and discriminatory practices. Nonetheless, violence against women has been increasing with even cases of unimaginable brutality surfacing occasionally. Take an example from five months ago of the Kathmandu man who murdered his innocent, newly-wed wife at a lodge in Pokhara with the cooperation of his girlfriend. His statement later revealed that their ‘marriage’ was just a part of the murder plan.  According to Police records, incidences of violence against women have increased by 20 percent over the last two years.

Nepal ratified the most comprehensive international agreement to protect the basic human rights of women-the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)—in April 1991.  And last year a bill on domestic violence made its way through the Parliament. The subsequent pronouncement and the prime ministerial declaration of 2010 as the Year against Gender-Based Violence were commendable. This was later followed by the announcement of a National Plan of Action with the establishment of women’s cells in police stations in 24 districts.  Women’s rights activists argue that these positive gestures are appreciable, but the repercussion of delay in framing corresponding rules and regulations is hindering victims from seeking justice and bringing perpetrators to the books.

In Nepal we often blame inadequate policy instruments, lax enforcement, ineffectiveness of regulatory bodies and deep-rooted cultural norms and prejudices as triggers of rampant domestic violence.  But why do Nepali women living in New York also remain silent sufferers of violence from their partners? Has it to do with our patriarchal mindset that we carry with us away from home?  Maybe future domestic violence studies with significant psychological components will help us find the answers one day.

It is often argued that most women remain unaware of intimate partner violence as a violation of basic human rights in rural Nepal because they perceive these types of violence as a natural and common in their families and communities. Is this also true among Nepali women living and/or working in the US, I wonder?

As Nepal is in observation of 16 days of activism marking Nov. 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, my mom’s answer seems to be troubling me yet again. If I argued with her, I would say, “Domestic violence against women is socially accepted in our culture. It is not the outcome of illiteracy and poverty.  It’s a power play between two individuals: one weak and the other powerful.”

Source: The Kathmandu Post – 28.11.2010