Nepal's war widows ostracised, treated as free housemaids, raped by relatives

by Katie Nguyen | Katie_Nguyen1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 13 June 2014 07:28 GMT

A woman and her son sit outside a temple in Kathmandu, on Oct. 7, 2013. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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Long after war has ended, widows endure domestic and sexual violence at hands of in-laws

Some of the most ignored victims of conflict around the world are the women widowed by war, activists say.

In Nepal, where thousands of women lost their husbands during a decade-long Maoist insurgency that ended in 2006, widows are often shunned because they are believed to bring bad luck.

Custom dictates that widows cannot wear colourful clothing, eat meat or attend weddings, said Lily Thapa, the founder of Women for Human Rights, told me on the sidelines of a global summit to end sexual violence in conflict.

They are expected to be in mourning for a year during which time they cannot see their family. In remote, rural areas, it's not uncommon for them to be forced to shave their heads and live away from the villages.

Not only do they face discrimination and stigma, but many are threatened with poverty, physical violence and rape as a result of disputes with in-laws over property.

"Domestic violence, physical violence is part of daily life for the widows. They're treated as a free housemaid (by their husbands' families)," Lily said.

"We have had reports of many young widows suffering sexual violence from in-laws especially brother-in-laws and father-in-laws. Even if the mother-in-law knows, she can't say anything against her husband."

Lily herself was only 29 when her husband, a doctor working for the United Nations, was killed in the 1991 Gulf War.

Despite the loss, she said she was fortunate compared to others in her native Nepal. She had grown up in a middle-class family, was well educated and able to earn enough to look after her three children.

Yet twice she contemplated suicide rather than face life as a widow.

"Widows from any class or caste or ethnicity face all kinds of challenges," she said.

Many women experience unspeakable atrocities during war.

"During the conflict many widows have had to witness the murder of husbands before and after they have been raped," said Annie Matundu-Mbambi, an activist from Democratic Republic of Congo.

Others, once widowed, continue to suffer long after peace has come.

Lily said widows in Nepal are often ostracised if they are seen in the company of other men, accused of immoral behaviour in the deeply patriarchal and conservative society.

"International community, the donors, don't prioritise help for widows. They think that women become widows when they get old," Lily said, adding that in countries like Nepal where girls are married off as young as 10, many widows are young.

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