31 Oct - 6 Nov 2014 #730

Married to the military

Nepal’s ‘conflict wives’ have been invisible and ignored
Trishna Rana

HERE ALONE: Bhumika Adhikari of Makwanpur married the soldier who raped her, but was physically abused and eventually abandoned by him. 
In 2001, Bhumika Adhikari (Gautam) of Hetauda was studying in Grade 9 when her younger sister and classmates were forcibly recruited into the Maoist militia. After the abduction, security forces regularly harassed Bhumika and her family and took her on patrols to help capture her sibling.

“We felt trapped from both sides. On the one hand, the Maoists intimidated families into supporting them and on the other hand, the army blamed us for sending a daughter to join the rebels and retaliate with force. We lived in constant fear,” recalls Bhumika.

During one search operation, Bhumika was taken to Simara of Bara district by a major from the Suparitar Barrack and raped. After receiving treatment at a hospital in Narayanghat, she followed the soldier to his home. “During the conflict, the Army ruled like kings and could do anything. My rapist was taking advantage of his unlimited powers,” she says. “But I refused to let him off the hook so easily. As an unmarried young woman who was forced into sex, my only option was to get him to marry me.”

But unknown to Bhumika at that time, the soldier was already married with children. Today, 14 years after the tragic event, Bhumika lives alone in a house in Kathmandu that she jointly owns with her husband. Even though polygamy is illegal in Nepal, in 2012 the Supreme Court recognised the two as husband and wife and ordered him to pay monthly alimony along with lump sum compensation.

The 34-year-old says she still receives verbal and physical threats from her husband and his family and is sad about being denied love, affection, and a chance at motherhood. But she also counts herself as fortunate to have the support of her parents who give her the strength to carry on her legal and personal battle.

Says Bhumika: “I try to speak up about my mistreatment, so that others can learn. I had done nothing wrong so why should I be afraid? But there are many women out there who have suffered physical or sexual abuse during war and they are understandably terrified to open up about their past because of the immense stigma and fear of public humiliation.”

However, with no formal education and qualification, and having to rely on alimony and house rent which she uses to repay her bank loan, Bhumika feels trapped within the confines of her four walls. She hasn’t received any compensation meant for war victims from the state and since the Army does not recognise their union, she is not eligible for family benefits like free healthcare either.

Five years ago, despite her lack of education, Bhumika started a small centre in Hetauda to assist victims of gender violence with legal paperwork. “Women come to Kathmandu from far corners of the country with their legal grievances, but they don’t even know where to register their case,” she explains.

Like many others affected by the conflict, Bhumika is frustrated by the sluggish pace of progress on the transitional justice front. “Victims go from one meeting to another in the hope that perhaps we’ll get closure, but so far the process has only reopened old wounds,” she says.

“The government doesn’t have to hand over billions to us, even small actions like acknowledging our contribution to the country, creating an identity for us, helping us become qualified and skilled, and providing space to show our capacity will go a long way in healing.”

While there is no official data on the number of wartime marriages, the practice was prevalent among both the security forces and the Maoist rebels. There are said to be more than 700 cases pending at the Maoist-affiliated All Nepal Women’s Organisation of women deserted by their guerrilla husbands after the end of the decade long conflict.

“During their long marches across Nepal, young homesick recruits got into relationships and the party encouraged inter-ethnic couples to get married,” says Aruna Rayamajhi, a former Maoist who has written about wartime marriages. “However, with the end of the conflict, many of these relationships fell apart and the men went back to marrying within their own ethnicity or caste.”

A 2006 study by the Institute of Human Rights Communication Nepal includes testimonies of 14-17 year old girls married to soldiers and police who abandoned their wives once they were transferred elsewhere. While some women married out of their own accord and some as a result of unwanted pregnancies and sexual abuse, others were lured into sexual relations on the false promise of marriage by security forces.

Since many wartime marriages are not legally recognised by the state, women find themselves vulnerable to abuse at the hands of their partners and families. Even as some families have accepted single mothers, most are left to fend for themselves and their young children and find themselves mired in poverty. Simple tasks like registering and admitting fatherless children in school are challenging and mothers have to fight long-drawn legal battles to pass on their citizenship.

In a country where women who were raped or sexually abused during the conflict and war widows who remarried have been denied compensation by the government, it is hard to imagine a future Truth and Reconciliation Commission being sensitive or willing to hear the sufferings of invisible ‘conflict wives’.  Similar to survivors of rape and sexual violence, providing justice for abandoned wives and single mothers will require much more commitment from the state in terms of offering legal help, psycho-social counseling, rehabilitation, and amending our archaic criminal laws.

However, with the recent turn of events it seems that justice and closure for victims will once again be sacrificed for the sake of political expediency. The inclusion of Rs 200,000 compensation for families of those killed and disappeared during the civil war and the people’s movement in the five-point deal between the three major parties earlier in the month, was a calculated attempt by the country's rulers to appease victims and drown out their demands with money.

With UCPN (Maoist) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal chairing the revived High Level Political Committee, his party will undoubtedly seek to control the future of the TRC and influence how prosecution and truth seeking are handled. 

Read also:

Rape as a weapon of war, Tufan Neupane

Where is the justice?, David Seddon

Death of justice, Editorial

Children of war, Kunda Dixit

On the sidelines of justice, Trishna Rana

Commissions of convenience, Trishna Rana