Teenage girls in Rukum East live in terror of outdated traditionsDeep-rooted customs where young girls are forcibly hauled away and abducted by men for marriage persist in several areas of the western Nepal district.
Last year in June, the locals of Putha Uttarganga Rural Municipality, Rukum East, held the Bhume festival involving shamanistic rituals practised by the indigenous population. It is considered a major festival in Rukum and is celebrated around mid-July, mid-January and during Buddha Purnima which falls in April.
Festivals usually are joyous occasions, but for a 17-year-old girl, a grade 12 student, the last Bhume festival left her scarred for life. A resident of ward 1 of Putha Uttarganga Rural Municipality, living in a rented apartment in Bachigaun in ward 10 of the same rural municipality, was brutally assaulted by four men in public under the pretext of practising the age-old tradition of ‘Tani Bibaha’, which can be loosely translated to mean ‘hauling a girl against her wishes to marry her.’
While the four men dragged the girl towards them, manhandled her, assaulted her and forced her to join them, no one came to the girl’s rescue. A few local women who tried to free the girl from the men’s grasp were also manhandled.
The person who led the group of men had a wife and two children. He made his desire public to take the young girl as his second wife and relied on the outdated tradition to garner support from the locals.
The commotion that ensued alerted the local police who reached the incident site and rescued the girl from the clutches of the misbehaving men. However, when the police tried to arrest the men and take them to the local police post, the local leaders including the people’s representatives did not let the police take action. The locals cited the age-old tradition and protected the men from legal punishment for violating a woman’s body and dignity.
Chief of the District Police Office, Deputy Superintendent of Police Anjana Shrestha, said that although the distraught girl at first was willing to file a complaint with the police against her abusers, she decided against it fearing backlash from the locals in her village who had threatened her and her family members of dire consequences if she took legal action against the four men.
“Abuse of girls in the name of traditions such as ‘Tani Bibaha’ happens more often than one would think. In far-flung villages of Rukum East, it is common for men to get away with such crimes, just because the perpetrators are protected by unspoken local diktats,” said Shrestha. “They know that the abused girl cannot file a case with the police as the elders of her village will stop her from doing so citing age-old customs. Even if the girls manage to save themselves, they suffer from physical and mental trauma and develop post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Another age-old tradition, whose corrupt version is still very much in practice in East Rukum villages, is ‘Chhotti Basne’. According to Megh Bahadur Shrestha, head of the District Coordination Committee, Rukum East, Chhotti Basne is an ancient custom that has been in practice in Rukum for generations.
“According to old folk tales and village elders, back in the day, a boy would come to the girl’s house or visit a public place to woo her into marriage. The boy would sing and dance and propose to the girl. The girl’s parents would be with her when the boy arrived for Chhotti. If the girl accepted the proposal, their marriage would be finalised,” said Megh Bahadur.
However, in the polluted version of the Chhotti Basne practice, the men do not seek the girls’ consent. They strongarm the girl into accompanying them if they like her.
“When the tradition originated, it was practised beautifully, whereby girls had their agency to accept or reject the man wooing her,” said Megh Bahadur. “These days, men do not extend such courtesy to women. They force themselves onto her and rely on tradition to protect them from legal consequences.”
On July 20, 2023, a 20-year-old girl from Kuchibang in Bhume Rural Municipality was also assaulted by four men in the middle of the road. The girl managed to escape. The men had recorded a video of the entire episode and put it up on social media as a sign of one-upmanship.
The girl, who had to relive the humiliating experience all over again since the incident was recorded and circulated on social media, gathered the courage to go to the police and file a complaint against the perpetrators on August 13. The police arrested the four men, all residents of ward 2 of Bhume Rural Municipality on charges of indecent behaviour.
The police investigation found the men guilty, and the district administration office made them pay a compensation of Rs20,000 to the girl. No further legal action was taken against the men.
Deputy Superintendent of Police Shrestha said that this is the only case in the district where action was taken against men abusing girls in the name of Tani Bibaha and Chhotti Basne after a complaint was filed by the abused girl.
“If society and family members support the victims of such abuses, the number of girls registering complaints against their perpetrators will go up,” said Shrestha. “If legal action is taken against the guilty, the number of such incidents will decrease.”
In an independent survey conducted by the Post among 179 teenage girls across the nine wards of the Putha Uttarganga Rural Municipality, 82.68 percent said they had been sexually abused by men in the name of Tani Bibaha and Chhotti Basne. The survey also revealed that the victims of such abuse were even girls under the age of 11. Similarly, 56.42 percent of girls have suffered such abuse and violence at least once, 20.67 percent at least two to five times, and 5.5 percent more than five times, the survey revealed.
However, more than 97.20 percent of the victims have not filed any complaints against their perpetrators and while some victims have retracted their initial complaints.
The terror of being abducted on their way to school or when they are unaccompanied by adults, has markedly lowered the attendance among girls of school-going age in local schools. The survey revealed that 78.77 percent of school-going girls in Putha Uttarganga Rural Municipality have low school attendance. Around 39.10 percent of teenage girls said their academic performance is greatly affected by the mental trauma they undergo in fear of being abducted by men. Among them, 14.52 percent dropped out to avoid being caught alone and unaware by the men with sinister intentions.
Fifteen-year-old Nabina Budha from Bachigaun calls out the patriarchal misogynist structure of Nepali society which emboldens men to commit such crimes against young girls.
“The people who encourage boys and men to practice evil traditions like Tani Bibaha and Chhotti Basne are the same people who shun an abused girl when she refuses to accept marriage to her abuser and wants to return home after her abduction,” she said. “If a girl returns after being abducted, the society rejects and taunts her. She is then left with no option but to accept the marriage conducted through Tani Bibaha and Chhotti Basne.”
Experts say misogynous practices have adversely affected the lives of girls and women. “The violence the young girls are subjected to greatly affects their health and education. Such practices even change the course of their lives,” said Tilak Gautam, chief of the District Education Development and Coordination Unit.
Babita Sherpaili, a 16-year-old girl from Bachigaun, said that as soon as the boys and men see a girl, they start teasing and touching them inappropriately. “There have been times when men have followed me and even entered my house. Some nights we hear knocks on our door asking us to let them in,” said Sherpaili. “I can never rest easy even at home.”
According to Sarita Sherpaili, president of Putha Uttarganga Rural Municipality's local-level Adolescent Girls’ Rights Forum, most girls in the rural municipality get married at 15 or 16. The rise in early marriage is a direct effect of traditions such as Tani Bibaha and Chhotti Basne. “Parents of young teenage girls would rather marry off their young daughter than see her subjected to abuse by men in the village,” she said. “This is also why early marriage continues to persist in their region.”
Little has been done at the local level to fight the dehumanising practices girls are subjected to in East Rukum. While the vice-chairman of Putha Uttarganga Rural Municipality Bhupendra Budha Magar admits that teenage girls are exposed to violation at the hands of men, she puts the responsibility of ‘saving’ themselves squarely on the girls.
“The adolescent girls themselves should be responsible for ending the practices. They are easily influenced by men and give in to the romantic notion of getting married,” she said.
Megh Bahadur Shrestha, chief of the District Coordination Committee, believes that such deeply-rooted evil practices can be uprooted through social awareness and strict legal action against the perpetrators and those who condone such practices.
“Rukum earlier had traditions like Rodhi [a nightly social gathering where young boys and girls sing and dance] and cousin marriage where a man had inherent claims over the daughters of maternal uncles. Things are now worse,” said Megh Bahadur.
Child marriage, Tani Bibaha, polygamy and Chhotti Basne practices, according to Chief District Officer Madhav Prasad Sharma, are against the country’s prevailing legal provisions. “We can immediately rescue the victims and take legal action against the perpetrators if police are informed,” said Sharma.
Sections 171, 175, 211, 212, 219 and 224 of the National Penal Code 2017 can be invoked for legal action against child marriage, Tani Bibaha, polygamy and Chhotti Basne practices. Clause 171 clearly states that no marriage shall be concluded, or caused to be concluded, without the consent of the persons getting married. A marriage concluded without the consent referred to in sub-section shall be void and a person who commits the offence shall be liable to a sentence of imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years and a fine not exceeding Rs20,000.
Consent for marriage applies only to those people who are 20 years of age. The person who married or caused to marry the child marriage shall be liable to a sentence of imprisonment of up to three years and a fine of up to Rs30,000.
Similarly, Section 175 says no married man shall, during the continuation of the marital relationship, conclude another marriage. No woman shall conclude marriage with a man knowingly that he is already married. A person who commits, or abets the offence shall be liable to a sentence of imprisonment for a term of one year to five years and a fine of ten thousand to fifty thousand rupees.
Sections 211 and 212 of the code discuss Tani Bibaha. A person who does or abets any act referred to in sections 211 or 212 shall be liable to a jail term of seven to ten years and a fine between Rs75,000 and Rs100,000.
Most people, however, are unaware of the legal provisions. “We accepted to be the wife of the persons who hauled and snatched us. We thought that Tani Bibaha and Chhotti Basne were men’s inherent rights,” said Dil Jyoti Budha, aged 53, of ward 11 of Putha Uttarganga. According to her, many adolescent girls in Rukum East still believe that their futures are determined by the men who snatch them. “Our daughters will be fortunate if such practices are soon abolished.”
Senior Sub-Inspector of Police Dambar Giri, in charge of the Taksera Area Police Office of the rural municipality, said that it is difficult for police alone to control incidents of Tani Bibaha and Chhotti Basne.
“Due to the interference of leaders and obstruction by the locals, we have not been able to detain or take action against the perpetrators of such crimes,” said Giri. “This is an evil practice and must be done away with or else young girls in Rukum East will not be able to free themselves from indignity and inhumanity.”
Sangita Ramjali, a 16-year-old girl from ward 10 of Putha Uttarganga Rural Municipality, said that girls in the villages live in continuous fear of getting assaulted and abducted by men in the name of tradition.
“We have to deal with eve-teasing every day. Men and boys often touch girls inappropriately in public and announce their intent to abduct us. It is scary,” she said. “Nobody understands the fear of being a teenage girl here. We might be abducted in broad daylight and forced to be a stranger’s wife. Everyone protects the boys and asks the girls to quietly accept misbehaviour, misconduct and outright threats from men.”
(This story has been published in collaboration with the Centre for Investigative Journalism-Nepal)