We decided to visit the Central Jail to confirm rumours that locked up there along with criminals were women with psychological problems. As we walked past the cells, accompanied by prison employees, both kinds of inmates gathered around us, pouring out their anguish.
. Will you allow us to go home?
. I was badly beaten up by my husband for no mistake of mine, and then he had me locked up here
. My husband married another woman, and I did not even get custody of my children.
. I fell madly in love with a man, but discovered too late that he was already married.
. I'm willing to take up any work, please just let me out of this place.
These statements sound like dialogues from a play, and the scenes we saw were equally surreal. The situation of the women in the central prison reflects the state of Nepali women as a whole.
Of the 107 female inmates in the Central Jail, 45 are in for being "mad". They are between the ages of 14 and 56, and some have been there as long as 34 years. They are crammed into six dark, stinking rooms with no facilities for cooking, washing or bathing. They are supplied with jail rations and asked to cook for themselves, but how can those women who are mentally disturbed be expected to cook. Many women have contracted diseases here, but the prison offers no treatment. Some women are here on grounds as slight as their parents and husbands writing to their chief district officer requesting "imprisonment and treatment" for these "mad" women.
Nepali law allows a man to marry again if his first wife is mad. Mentally ill people are not entitled to inheritance, and their families are not obliged to support them or provide them treatment. The easiest way to get rid of a woman is to declare her "mad". Society will turn a deaf ear to any declaration by a woman about her own state of mind.
The living conditions here could drive any woman crazy. There is an acute water shortage, and the situation gets worse for these women when they have their periods. When we visited, one woman was playing with her own blood, making patterns on the floor. This scene spoke volumes about the condition inside the jail. The government \'treats' these women-with sleeping pills.
Bishnu Maya, 48, was released from the Central Jail after seven years of imprisonment, but was brought back here. She told us, "I am not mad. When I was released from here, my husband's second wife and her daughter-in-law used to denigrate me constantly. I was hurt, so I quarrelled and cried, which was all they needed to prove that I am mad. My husband brought me here by force to be locked up again."
Most women are here on charges of abortion. A 1997 study shows that 20 percent of women prisoners in Nepal are serving sentences for abortion, but only 0.3 percent of male prisoners have been prosecuted on the charge. Usually, men flee their village as soon as they discover they are responsible for an illegitimate pregnancy. The few who get caught use their political connections or buy their freedom. These statistics from 1997 tell another bitter truth: a man is supported by his family and society even if he is a rapist, but society is always unsympathetic to a woman even if she is just a victim.