Durga Rajbansi lives in constant fear of men. Ever since two years ago, when she left her home in Diglibazar village, Jhapa to come to Kathmandu in search of a job, she has been victimised by them. She doesn't trust them anymore.
Durga breaks down and cries many times when we talk to her, and hugs her infant son protectively as she speaks in a low voice about the cruelty she has seen in her short life.
Her sister and brother-in-law found Durga a job in a Koteswor carpet factory. The owner promised free meals, a place to stay and Rs 20 for every kilo of wool she spun. Some days, Durga worked 21 hours from 4-1AM, determined to quickly earn enough money so that she could go back home with her savings. But the job was a trap.
Six months later, Durga had earned Rs 15,000 but the carpet factory owner refused to pay her. At Dasai year before last, she asked the owner for a few hundred rupees to buy new clothes. But he said it was Durga who owed him Rs 1,200 for food and lodging.
She had no money, and was then locked up in a dirty room and told she would not be released until she paid up. "It was worse than a prison. I could hardly breathe, and I was starving," recalls Durga. After five days, 20-year-old Hari Tamang who also worked in the same factory, offered to buy Rajbansi from the owner for Rs 1,200, saying that he wanted to marry her.
"I had no choice but to go with him. I was so afraid that the owner would call the police and put me in prison," Durga recalled. "I didn't know I would have been better off locked up in that room." Hari never intended to marry her. He just wanted to use her as collateral, farming her off to other carpet factories and living off her earnings as he had been doing with other women for a decade.
Hari found her a new job at another carpet factory in Bhaktapur where he borrowed Rs 9,000 from the owner and told him he could work Durga like a slave until she repaid his debt. "I forgave him all the time, just hoping that he would marry me soon," says Durga about Hari. After working long hours, Durga often returned to their room to find Hari with other women. It took two long hard months for Durga to earn enough to pay back the owner Hari's loan.
A month later, they married at Dakshinkali. "I thought my life would be better after all," she told us. But things were about to get much worse. Hari borrowed another Rs 5,000 from a Gokarna carpet factory and disappeared. She was left at the mercy of the owner. One night, while she was sleeping, he knocked on her door saying he had to discuss something important. As soon as she opened the door, a group of six or seven men came in and raped her.
The villagers heard her screams and came to investigate, but were told by the owner she was a prostitute who lured men to her room when her husband was away. A month later,Hari turned up and started treating her well. He even took the rape case up with the police, but they said that his wife was a prostitute. The couple moved to Jorpati where Durga found work in a carpet factory and Hari got a job as a house painter. She gave birth to her son and for the first time hoped that this was when her life would get better.
Within a week of her delivery, Durga found out Hari was seeing another woman. When she confronted him, he beat her up, kicking her face and stomach until she fainted and had to be hospitalised. When she came back to her room, Hari had left, and told all the neighbours he abandoned her because she had AIDS.
The landlord locked her out, forcing Durga to live on the streets begging for food and clothes for 10 days. Last week, an elderly man approached her and asked what was she doing in the rain without any clothes for her child. After listening to her story, he gave Durga the address of the Women's Foundation, which helps survivors of social violence. It took her two days to find the office. Social workers took her in and are working on tracing the carpet factories and the men who owned them. "I'm now at peace, I just hope nobody else suffers what I did," says Durga breaking down at the end of her story. But for the first time in long while, they are not tears of sorrow.
Renu Sharma and a group of woman lawyers at the Women's Foundation are preparing their case to find justice for Durga Rajbansi. Fifteen years ago, when they were still schoolgirls, Renu and her friends started sheltering survivors of violence and providing legal assistance to them. Women survivors were given education and training skills to help them get a new start on life.
"The major challenge is that our legal system lacks strong laws against violence on girls and women," says Renu. The perpetrators are released, and they just go back to their old ways of beating up women. She knows that many of those she puts behind bars are likely to come after her for revenge. A sex trafficking gang once surrounded her and a friend in Indra Chowk and demanded that she withdraw her case against them. She left one of her companions with them, and ran to Hanuman Dhoka police station. Renu turned the tables on the men and had them arrested.
Renu and her family know they put themselves at risk, but they have taken precautions. "We have all been trained in martial arts and have to be alert all the time," she says. Her shelter had to be moved to five different places after the activists were attacked by men accused of beating and exploiting their wives, daughters, or employees. The Women's Foundation now has branches in 12 districts.
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