WOMEN'S RIGHTS

Nepal's burn victims face tortured fight for justice

Many perpetrators of such horrific violence in Nepal go unpunished because of the limited scope and restrictive requirements of the law

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 March, 2015, 7:19am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 10:17am

For Nepalese burn victim Rita Dangol, the scars on her face and body are a haunting reminder of a twisted love story that ended the night she was engulfed in flames.

Dangol wept as she spoke about her husband, who splashed kerosene on her from behind and set her alight. She said her in-laws might have provoked his act; they wanted their son to marry someone from the same caste. Dangol was not.

"My in-laws abused me for years, and my husband also gave up on me eventually," said the 30-year-old, whose name has been changed for this story.

"I was screaming, trying to douse the fire, but he shoved me inside the kitchen so I couldn't escape. "I'll never be the same person again."

Dangol's case underscores the plight of many Nepalese women who are burned alive in acts of domestic violence.

Reasons range from dowry-related issues to polygamy and family feuds. Some women are also set ablaze for not bearing a son, according to Burns Violence Survivors Nepal, which advocates for the rights of such women. Though the prevalence is widespread, Nepal lacks any statistics on such incidents and does not incorporate burn violence under its Domestic Violence (Crime and Punishment) Act.

As a result, the cases are often dismissed as accidents, suicides or filed as homicide or attempted murder cases.

"Legally speaking, the survivors don't get any justice because there are no laws," said Kripa Rana Shahi, project manager at BVS-Nepal.

Sandhya Basini Sitoula, an advocate at the Centre for Legal Research and Resource Development, said Nepal's Domestic Violence Act neglects burn violence and its provision on physical harm is very confined.

"Burn violence cases are so severe that even the police hesitate to file it under domestic violence," Sitoula said.

When Dangol was taken to the hospital, her legs, a hand and chest, along with her face, had been inflamed.

The incident was reported as an accident. By the time she was mentally prepared and willing to press charges for domestic violence, it was too late.

According to Nepal's law, victims should file an official complaint within 90 days of the offence. But experts said burn survivors can take months to recuperate physically and mentally.

In most cases, women also hesitate to challenge their husbands and in-laws, Shahi said. High medical costs and lack of financial and social support discourage them from waging a legal battle, forcing them to make compromises.

But last year, Rihana Sheikh Dhaphali grabbed national attention when she publicly demanded justice for her husband and in-laws' crime.

They had set the then 19-year-old on fire demanding a motorbike and buffalo. She was seven months pregnant.

Though Dhapali's case is an act of dowry-related domestic violence, it was filed under attempted murder exempting the victim of any compensation.

But even under the Domestic Violence Act, provisions regarding compensation and security of the victims are discretionary and vague; they do not specifically mention burn victims, Sitoula said. "When we talk about burn violence, there are different degrees of burns, and the treatment is expensive," she said. "But under this act, victims are not compensated until the verdict. So there should be provisions for interim relief."

Nepal's National Women Commission, according to spokeswoman Manu Humagain, is taking an initiative to direct the government's attention. "Right now, we do feel that there is a lack of definitive law," she said. "We want to press for a law that would protect the victims, punish the perpetrators and also prevent such incidents."

But until then Dangol said survivors will continue to suffer in silence, denied justice. "People should understand that I was burned because of domestic violence. "I hope there will be a strict law to punish the perpetrators. They deserve a life sentence."