16-22 May 2014 #707

“My husband and in-laws left me to die”

Ayesha Shakya

Patriarchal values in a male-dominated society keep the dowry system alive in Nepal

By: Ayesha Shakya

Rihana Sheikh Dhaphali at Bir Hospital
A frail figure, heavily bandaged, lies on a bed at Bir Hospital in Kathmandu. She has a distant expression on her face which is writ large with the fatigue from her excruciating trauma.

Rihana Sheikh Dhaphali (pic) is just 19, and she was married last year. Her voice is barely audible as she recounts how her husband, Farid Sheikh, and in-laws set her on fire two months ago in Banke district for not bringing enough dowry. Rihana was seven months pregnant. Her husband and mother-in-law had been nagging her persistently about bringing a motorcycle, wrist watch and buffalo as dowry, even though there had been no request for it initially.

“Both my husband and mother-in-law would threaten me to bring dowry from my parents,” Rihana said weakly. “First they only shouted at me, then they started hitting me. I didn’t tell anyone what was happening, not even my parents. I just kept things to myself and cried alone.”  Farid then started torturing his wife, often burning her with cigarette butts.

On 17 March, he tied Rihana’s hands, and while his mother-in-law poured kerosene, he lit a match and set her on fire. Although she sustained severe burns over the lower part of her body, Rihana was locked up in her room and not taken to hospital for three days.

When her condition worsened, Farid took her to a hospital across the border in Bahraich in India, threatening her not to tell the doctors what happened. Later, she was brought back to Bheri Zonal Hospital in Nepalganj. But as her health deteriorated, Rihana lost her baby, and the human rights group, INSEC, arranged for her to be taken to Kathmandu.

Photo: BVS
Police in Banke say they are investigating the crime, but Farid Sheikh and his family are believed to have fled to India.

Piyush Dahal, chief of the Burns Unit at Bir Hospital said her legs were heavily contracted and the wounds were oozing with pus when she arrived. So far, doctors are trying to prevent infection, and are waiting to perform skin grafts.

Says Dahal: “Burns related cases are always very critical if infections set in. We restrict visitors, but allow family members because she needs psychological support. It is not just about physical healing, emotional support goes a long way to help patients forget the pain.”

Unlike many bride burning cases where the girl’s parents don’t want to be involved, Rihana’s family has been by her side all along. Her father, Samin Sheikh, says he was not aware of what his daughter was facing at her in-law’s house. Rihana has seven siblings and one of her sisters, Hasina Banu, is with her at the hospital in Kathmandu. The family has appealed for Group AB+ blood for transfusion before the operation.

Burn Violence Survivors (BVS) which works with victims of domestic violence and burns victims, has taken up Rihana’s case and is paying for her treatment. Apart from the operation, doctors are focusing on nutrition and physiotherapy, two factors which are crucial in enabling Rihana to walk again. BVS also helps patients with rehabilitation and skills training for income generation so that they can be financially independent once she is well again. Although the agency offers legal help to patients to take their tormentors to court, most women who survive attacks back down after threats from in-laws.

“If Rihana’s family don’t change their mind considering legal actions against her husband and in-laws, it would be a test case for the rest,” says Wendy Marston of BVS, “but we can only support them, not push them.”

From her hospital bed, Rihana says she wants her husband and in-laws to face justice. “I used to lead a happy life before my marriage. Now look at me, my husband and in-laws have just left me here to die,” she adds.

Although illegal, the dowry system persists because it is so deeply rooted in the patriarchy prevalent in Nepal, especially in the Tarai region (see map). In India, the incidence of bride burning is increasing despite a law against dowry being in place since 1961. In 2010 police said there were 8,400 cases of dowry deaths in India. Many more are said to have been unreported.

WOREC

Activists note that education and middle class values have not reduced the incidence of domestic violence against women. They say entrenched patriarchy and the culture of consumerism has further encouraged dowry demands. Because of the cultural similarities, the same trends are visible across the border in Nepal as well.

“Women are aware of the dowry system but they don’t yet have the capacity to speak up against it,” says Sabitri Pokharel, program coordinator in the secretariat of Mahila Adhikar Manch. “We need to empower women so they are able to stand up for their rights and choices. We need to educate children on the dowry system so that as adults they learn to oppose it.” She says the new constitution needs to ratify laws on the dowry system so perpetrators of violence don’t go unpunished.

According to Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC), the most common form of domestic violence are beating and burning, normally perpetuated by the husbands or in-laws. Last month, WOREC started a “No to Dowry” campaign in two Tarai districts where the prevalence of dowry violence is said to be highest, Dhanusha and Siraha. The agency is using pamphlets, posters and street drama to spread awareness during the campaign.

Burns Violence Survivors (BVS)

For donation: Ace Development Bank Ltd Naxal, Narayan Chour Ward No 1 Kathmandu, Nepal

Bank a/c #: 004004000000129007

Swift Code: ACDENPKA

To donate AB+ blood for Rihana: Bir Hospital

Read also:

Love for sale FROM THE NEPALI PRESS

… gender rights and education, KONG YEN LIN

A burning problem, BHRIKUTI RAI

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Acid attacks

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