Nepalese women at a Hindu religious festival in Bhaktapur, Nepal. (Photo: Pedro Ugarte / AFP/Getty Images)
Six months ago 16-year-old Ashmi was preparing to put red mud on the floor of her hut in Western Nepal, a chore she does each month. It was a holiday and her family was gathering firewood for the village bonfire.
She was about to smooth down the first glop of mud when she heard the door open. "My cousin was standing at the entrance," she said. "By the time I stood up he'd already locked the door."
Ashmi's 20-year old cousin held down her wrists and raped her. Then he stood and said, "If you tell anyone, you will die by my hand."
Ashmi kept silent. She wanted to tell others but when she tried she would hear his voice, feel his eyes watching. Months later, when her belly started to swell, she told her parents what had happened. Her mother wailed. Her father was silent.
Word spread and soon everyone in her village knew. "She's a liar. She enticed another man to sleep with her and now she's trying to cover it up," people whispered. The boy's mother, Ashmi's aunt, was less quiet about her opinions: "Ashmi's blaming her own mistake on my son."
As Ashmi's belly grew, so did the insults. Eventually they turned violent. A female neighbour spat on her. Two boys she'd grown up with pelted her with rocks on her way home from school one day. She no longer felt safe in her village. Her growing belly reminded her that two lives were in danger. When she was three months pregnant, Ashmi followed the advice of a community-based organisation and left her village for a women's shelter in the capital Kathmandu.
Ashmi's story embodies the hundreds of stories represented in a recently released report by the International Rescue Committee, United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) and Saathi, a Nepali NGO. The report looks at gender-based violence in two districts of mid-west Nepal, through interviews with over 400 women and focus group discussions with men, women and children.
The main findings paint a grim picture. More than 200 of the young women interviewed had been raped during the past two years. Over 80 percent of married women interviewed were abused by their husbands. Young unmarried women, like Ashmi, were most vulnerable, being four times more likely to experience violence than older married women. Like Ashmi's case, most incidents happened inside the victim's home.
The study contributes to a small but growing body of information on gender-based violence in Nepal. Although it is careful not to make generalizations about the whole country, taken with other evidence the findings suggest an uncomfortable reality about this newly democratic state: most people in rural Nepal are affected by violence against women in some way.
Although the study leaves questions about root causes of the violence to future researchers, Ashmi offers her own insight. When asked why she thought her cousin did it, she shrugged and looked down. After a pause she said, "Because he can."
Ashmi's cousin and the hundreds of thousands of other perpetrators like him "can" because, in the words of Kristin Kim Bart, IRC Gender-Based Violence Technical Advisor, "Most (Nepali) see violence as a normal part of being a woman." Just as women must carry the water, have children, make rice and plaster the mud floors, they also must be the recipients of forced sex and violence.
The survey asked the focus groups what actions would reduce violence against women in Nepal. Their suggestions, included in the recommendations of the report, are to increase dialogue about violence against women, enforce existing rape laws, give women more economic and educational opportunities and improve reproductive health care.
Government and citizen action on these suggestions will determine whether or not Ashmi's unborn baby is likely to experience or commit the same violent act that brought it into this world.
Today Ashmi is six months pregnant and temporarily lives in a women's shelter in Kathmandu. She does not know if she will keep her child or put him/her up for adoption, nor if her community will accept her back. She hopes to return to school someday.