Half widows have little hope for justiceDashain, as usual, brought some bitter-sweet memories for Rita Pudashaine. As in the previous years, some of the older members in her family hesitated about putting the auspicious red tika on her forehead.Rita, however, is adamant that her husband is still alive and that she has the right to put on the red tika. After prolonged discussions, she did get to fulfil the ritual.
Dashain, as usual, brought some bitter-sweet memories for Rita Pudashaine. As in the previous years, some of the older members in her family hesitated about putting the auspicious red tika on her forehead.Rita, however, is adamant that her husband is still alive and that she has the right to put on the red tika. After prolonged discussions, she did get to fulfil the ritual.
“This happens every year. They all think he is not going to come back, but my heart tells me he will come one day,” says Rita, 35. Almost a decade ago, her husband, Rajendra Pudhasaine, went to watch a political rally at Kalanki, during the April Revolution of 2006 and never returned home.Those who had gone with him brought news that her husband would not come home again, but failed to tell her why he would not be returning. Ever since, the mother of two, who was only 22 at the time, has been struggling on her own to sustain her family.According to government reports, around 1,600 people have disappeared during various conflicts in the country. The wives of the disappeared have been told that their husbands will not return—that they have been killed. Many of them claim that they have not received any official ‘proof’ that their husbands are dead; and the women live the lives of ‘half widows’.
Human rights activists working with conflict victims say that the plight of half widows is worse than the widows in our society. The reactions to the loss of family members or of them being subjected to torture or other forms of human rights violation have created feelings of frustration, rage and depression. Depending on the type of trauma experienced, many victims have felt that they were losing touch with reality.
“Can you imagine having to accept your husband is dead simply on the words of some strangers and hoping against hope that one day he will come back,” says Sarita Sapkota of Kavre, whose husband, Bal Ram Sapkota, has been missing since the 10-year-long Maoist insurgency.Sarita’s husband was a local politician and had been conducting a nutrition training programme at his home when some villagers came seeking help to deal with Maoist cadres who were extorting donations from the locals. He did not return home. It has been 17 years since.
Fear of social stigma is high among the half widows. Without a job or property, Sarita has had to work hard to raise her children. There were times when Sarita was afraid to go from one government office to another with locals volunteers. For the single mother, the fact that she has to do things on her own and associate with other men raises many eyebrows.
The plight of half widows is prevalent not just in Nepal: South Asia has a huge number of such women, with Afghanistan and Sri Lanka topping the list. The majority of these widows across the region have problems of raising a family on their own. “My elder daughter was not able to pursue her education in the field she had chosen because I was not able to afford the fees,” says a frustrated Sarita.
Razin Rayamajhi , who has been providing legal support to some of the half widows, says the 12-year time frame set by the government, in which property of the missing cannot be transferred to existing family members, puts a huge economic burden on them. “In most of the cases, family members do not want the widows to get any share of the property because they blame the wife for the loss of their son,” explains Razin. “The government’s time frame makes them vulnerable to economic, social and psychological torture.”
Both Rita and Sarita have been unable to get their rightful share of the family property. With the support of some locals, Sarita had built a shack on a small piece of land that belonged to her in-laws. The recent earthquakes, however, destroyed the safety nest, built with so much hard work, and now she does not have a roof over her head. “I don’t own the land and I am afraid that I will not receive anything, even if the government provides reconstruction relief,” says Sarita.
Rita has had an even bitter experience. Theirs being a love marriage, she had never been fully accepted by her husband’s family. After his disappearance, they completely disowned her and her children. The ancestral house Rita had been living in was brought down by the earthquakes as well, but her repeated attempts to find help from her in-laws have yielded no results.
Even though the country has changed since the conflicts that took their husbands ended, the lives of the half widows remain stuck in obscurity. The formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had given them a glimmer of hope but the inactiveness of the commission has quickly doused what little hope it had ignited in their hearts.
“All we want is for the people who have taken our husbands to be brought to trial but those very people have been nominated as lawmakers by their parties. Will the TRC be strong enough to put these people behind the bars? I don’t have hope,” says Sarita, who has so far received Rs 5,00,000 from the government, in five instalments. It has been a long wait for the two half widows, and they are still waiting. They refuse to believe that their husbands are gone. Time, it is said is a good healer. But with Rita and Sarita time has not been able to do very much.