Women were targeted during the government persecution in Bhutan and when they lived in Nepalese refugee camps.Even before the extreme government persecution began, Bhutanese women struggled under a patriarchal society. Men held the majority of economic and social power. Child marriage and domestic abuse were common. The Human Rights Watch Report "Trapped by Inequality: Bhutanese Refugee Women in Nepal" shares the story of a woman who was married at age 5.
Saraswati D. recounted the hardships that cultural norms posed to her as a widow, “I was age five when I got married. I first moved to my husband’s house at age fifteen. After my husband died, when other men worked in my fields I would be accused of having special relations with them. Fields have to be ploughed with oxen by men. But because I was afraid of rumors, I ploughed the fields by myself at night with a spade. I did all the work that men did and I couldn’t ask for help.”35Systematic crackdowns and expulsions in the 1990s gave law enforcement officers and government officials ample opportunity to abuse women. The same Human Rights Watch Report shares the testimony of a woman who was a victim of this abuse.
My husband had taken a second wife and left me. I had three children, two daughters and one son. At the time of the census, the dzongdha [district official] called me to bring proof of my citizenship. I brought proof, but the dzongdha said it’s not right. After two days, the army was brought by the block head [local official]. At nighttime they knocked on the door. I didn’t open it and then they forcibly entered. They told me, “We have heard your brother comes to your house. Is this so?” I said, “I don’t know where he is.” Then they hit me with the gun. They kicked me and I fell down. I stood up and then they kicked me again, and I fell down again. They said we have to torture you, then only will you tell us where your brother is. Then the army tore my clothes. It was torture; they raped me. It was the army, two of them raped me while the others held me down. The next morning I went to my relative’s house, but they told me not to stay with them because maybe the army would come and do the same thing to them. One week later I fled [to Nepal].6Rape was a significant cultural taboo for women that caused deep shame. If they became pregnant after the attack, they were often shunned. Sometimes after an incident, young women were married off to their attackers in an attempt to save their dignity. In Birendra Giri's report "Mourning the 15th Anniversary of Crisis: The Plight of Bhutanese Refugee Women and Children", she shares the testimony of a refugee woman who spoke on what happened to her after she was raped.
In addition to violent abuse, women forcibly had their culture stripped from them. This included being forced to wear the Ngalung traditional clothing and cutting their long hair, which was extremely valuable to them.
My husband had been involved in the [political] demonstrations. When the Bhutanese army was dispatched to arrest the demonstrators, he had already fled to the hills. While I was staying with my parents, the army came and dragged me away and raped me. When I fled Bhutan and finally ended up in the refugee camp, I realised that I was pregnant. Now, I have a daughter. When I found out that my husband had also managed to escape to Nepal and was living in another refugee camp, I tried to contact him but he refused to visit due to the illegitimate child. (Giri, 2003: 33)
Life did not get better for women in Nepal. Human trafficking, sexual assault, and domestic violence was prevalent and a direct risk to their safety. Humanitarian aid workers and Nepalese authorities—people whose job it was to protect the refugees—were found to have committed these crimes. In addition, the services in refugee camps were inadequate and discriminated against women. Many women and their children were not legally recognized. This made them stateless and took away the few protections they would have had as refugees.
Giri's report also share the testimony of a woman on the abuse she endured in the refugee camp.
I went to take part in our relative’s ratauli [wedding party night at groom’s house]. My husband had allowed me to go there. I have two children [9,11] at home. They also told me I could go. They’d study together for a while and go to bed. But my kids fell asleep without turning off the kerosene-fed lamp. In their sleep one of them kicked the lamp, and ﬁre erupted. When I came home at about 4 am, my husband suddenly got out of bed furiously calling me ‘kukurni’ [literally ‘female dog’, but implying ‘bitch’], why did you go without taking care of children?’ He ﬁrst slapped hard on my face by pulling my hair, and then kicked everywhere with his feet. He left me hoping that I was dead for good only when I had fainted. My children were frightened to death. When my husband had left home at around 7 am, my children managed to wake me up. They told me what happened. I was so happy they were unhurt, but I still collapse when I think of that unfortunate morning.There are some opportunities for women in the camps. Like Sita Adhikari, a woman Danielle Preiss featured in her story "As Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal wind down, resettlement program is considered a success" for The World. Sita is a high school math teacher in the camp but has decided to leave soon for Rochester NY for better opportunities.
Many women have successfully resettled and overcome the hurdles associated with living in the US. Hear from Devi about her hardships and how she worked through them.