The Hindu State, Women’s Activism and The Cultural Coding of Sexual Violence and Impunity in Nepal
In the past few years, there has been an increase in attention to violence against women and especially the responsibility of the state in Nepal. As others have pointed out, despite various political and social campaigns including the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), and the “One Billion Rising” campaign to end GBV, violence against women in Nepal is rampant, as is impunity for perpetrators. As noted Indian feminist activist Kamla Bhasin stated at the 2013 Kathmandu launch of the “One Billion Rising” campaign, “Violence is everywhere because patriarchy is everywhere.” Much was made by Bhasin of the significance of launching the South Asia programme in Nepal. A list of the progressive and empowering laws won by Nepali women over the years — laws and rights not yet obtained by Indian and other South Asian women — was recited to loud applause. The list portrayed Nepal as a progressive light in the patriarchal darkness of the Indian sub-continent.
Nepal has made great advancements in the promotion and protection of women’s rights including anti-sexual violence measures such as the historical marital rape law of 2006. However, an analysis of sexual violence in Nepal requires an understanding of the systematic and societal structures that promote or allow sexual violence and impunity to exist.
This paper offers an insight into these structures through an analysis of the legal vocabulary as they relate to women’s bodies and sexual violence and impunity. State elites in Nepal have historically been concerned with the regulation of the sexuality of the population. On third of the Muluki Ain of 1854 centered on the regulations of sexual relations including state regulation of inter-caste sexual, marital and commensal relations. The amended MA promulgated in 1963 deleted the language of caste distinctions and hierarchies and laws applied to all uniformly regardless of sex and “caste.”
However, deeper analyses of legal changes – including those in the very recent past – reveals the continuation of central cultural codings. Underlying the latter has been assumptions of the male ownership of women’s bodies, the sexual purity of women and the honor associated with women’s bodies. This paper seeks to uncover the cultural codings embedded in various laws as they relate to women and their bodies. These includes analyses of laws and regulations on marriage, divorce, jari and rape and its punishments in all its legally disaggregated categories. It is argued that such cultural codings have been historically utilized to legitimate sexual violence against women, categorize such crimes within the judicial system as being of minor importance and enable impunity to perpetrators.