Crime and clarityThe police must institutionally do away with the current iniquitous practice of finding a compromise solution over rape
Even as news about the first meetings of the provincial assemblies dominated the headlines, two unrelated but interlinked cases had our heads spinning. I am referring to the rape cases, first in Itahari and then in Kathmandu’s Durbar Marg, that have continued to generate a lot of heat for the police. These incidents have demonstrated in somewhat granular detail how heinous acts like rape are handled by our guardians of law, and what has come to light so publicly does not help the organisational image of the Nepal Police.
What is surprising about this whole episode is that the cases made it to the news, to the extent that has had some heads rolling within the police hierarchy. For, despite the tone of righteous indignation in the statements emanating from the police brass, it is common knowledge that even though, as everywhere else, rape is a criminal offence, informally mediated settlements are often the way rape cases are dealt with by the police in Nepal—often for a price, as it transpired was so in the two cases mentioned above.
Pecuniary corruption is only part of the story though. Since rape is often used to demonstrate power over some individual, family or community for the simple reason that it can be done with impunity, other factors comes into play. Marital rape is a case in point, for although it is in the statute books and sexual violence from the husband is not so uncommon in Nepal, it hardly ever merits attention. We also often hear stories of how politicians and other notables get tangled up in such cases and abet criminals in getting off without penalty. This can either happen through buying the victim’s silence through a financial arrangement, mediaevalist arrangements such as getting the victim married off to the perpetrator, or by just making sure that the police do not pursue the case at all.
I got a sense of how the powerful can consider rape to be a right. I was in my early teens in the late 1970s, and a group of us were coming back to Kathmandu from Hetauda. Due to the arrangements worked out, I found myself in a Volkswagen van full of members of the Rastriya Panchayat. As a smallish boy, I was in the front seat, squashed between the driver and the most important among the honourable members, the chair of one of the legislative committees. Everyone behaved deferentially towards the latter, and I presume that it was also due to the fact the chairperson belonged to a wealthy family from western Nepal. As the journey progressed, the honourable chairperson started regaling his fellow members with tales of this and that. The one that I remember most vividly was the graphic description of how in his youth he had his lackeys hold a girl as he forced himself on her, something that actually made sense to me only in later years. Let alone the fact that he was recounting the story in front of a minor, equally disconcerting was the manner in which the all-male party of ‘honourables’ had received the story—with full-throated, hearty approval.
Now, if that particular case had gone to the police, and we are probably talking about the 1950s here, there is absolutely no chance that the law would have taken its course. The highly influential father of the honourable chairperson would have ensured that. The alleged police pay-offs involved in both the Itahari and Kathmandu cases have proved clearly once again that not much has changed in the decades since.
Only part of the story
The Nepal Police data shows that over the past 20 years, the number of rape cases in the country has gone up from 112 to 1139. There has been a steady increase in the numbers, and this is likely the function of more incidents being reported than an increase in rapes per se, although even that is unknown. But, what we do know is that violence against women has continued apace. The Nepal Police figures on domestic violence alone are staggering—from a low of 337 in 1996/97 to nearly 12,000 in 2016/17. Of course, these are only the cases reported to the police, for according to the Nepal Demographic Health Survey (NDHS) 2016, only 22 percent of the women who experienced any violence, physical or sexual, have sought help, with the majority of these seeking help within their own family (65 percent) or with neighbours (31 percent). What proportion of those ultimately result in going to the police is also not known. However, despite the striking spike after 2013/14, the police figure of 12,000 appears to be barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the extent of violence against women and girls.
To understand that, consider some other figures from the NDHS 2016. Some 22 percent of the women had experienced physical violence after turning 15, with the most common source of violence being the husband, in 84 percent of the cases. Further, 7 percent of the women reported having experienced sexual violence, with divorced, separated or widowed women being most at risk. Among married women, the source of sexual violence was once again the husband (80 percent).
That probably also explains the relatively high receptivity of an initiative started by the National Women’s Commission (NWC). Called ‘Khabar Garaun 1145’, it provides assistance in terms of shelter, counselling, legal advice, etc., to anyone seeking assistance as a victim, or on behalf of such a victim, of gender-based violence. The initiative is being piloted in only the four districts of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Lalitpur and Nuwakot, and the response appears to be quite impressive, with some 2000 calls followed up on in a recent two-month period. Given the anonymity such a service provides, along with the ease of use as it requires only a phone call and not having to deal with the generally male officialdom, the demand for such a service will only grow as and when more people come to learn of it.
Compare that with attitudes towards spousal violence in the context that domestic violence was criminalised nearly a decade ago. Asked if wife-beating is justified if the wife burns the food, argues with the husband, goes out of home without telling her husband, neglects their children, or refuses to have sex with her husband, NDHS 2016 found that 29 percent of the women agreed (along with 23 percent of the men). With such views, it is no wonder that despite the laws in place, we find that women continue to shoulder the burden of so much indiscriminate violence at home, and outside.
For all the attention the recent rape cases has generated, it can only be hoped the police will institutionally do away with the current iniquitous practice of finding a compromise solution over rape. But, it will also need to be supplemented by a whole sea of change in how violence against women is perceived.
With the local elections having changed the balance of power at the local level, with nearly 40 percent of the representatives being women, perhaps there is an opportunity at long last.