Ms A was 18 when she got married to her teenage sweetheart in 2011. She even did not take her grade 11 examinations as they collided with her wedding date.
“I had met him on Facebook. After around six months of courtship, we got married. We had a grand wedding with the participation of both families, extended family members, relatives, friends, neighbours and all.”
Ms A had a fantastic life after the wedding. But after the birth of her daughter the next year, things started to fall apart, especially after her husband went abroad. Then, she began to live separately from her husband and his family, with her mother.
“Soon after I started living separately, people began talking about me. I was slut-shamed by my own family and relatives,” Ms A recounts the experience, “No one in the locality would allow their daughter of and below my age to talk to me thinking I would spoil them. Even if some of my friends visited me, they were scolded by their parents.”
All of these behaviours forced her to live being socially isolated after her divorce, says Ms A. But, this is just the tip of the iceberg as sociologists and experts share women are more victimised and stigmatised in Nepali society post-divorce, forcing them to face many social and individual hurdles.
Patriarchy in play
Sociologist Dipesh Ghimire explains divorce is not only an event but also a concept. In a society where there is economic freedom or where both men and women have equal access to economic systems, the understanding of divorce is very different.
According to him, people in those societies usually consider it as a common phenomenon as they believe that until you have mutual understanding, you live in a union, however, if there is no more mutual understanding, you part your ways.
“However, this is not the society we live in. In Nepal, there are stigmas attached to divorce,” says Ghimire. “There is a huge disparity in the way divorced women and men are looked upon in this society. Accordingly, there is a difference in the way of making adjustments post-divorce be it regarding their safety and other things.”
In Nepali society, immediately after the divorce, questions about and preparations for a second marriage start among their relatives for men. “He is free to get remarried and neither his divorce affects his partner choices,” another sociologist Sunita Raut, adds, “But, a divorced woman does not have such choices as our society sees women as an ‘object’.”
Both Ghimire and Raut believe whatever may be the reason for divorce, women are often looked down upon and not treated well even by their families, relatives, neighbours and colleagues.
Social conditioning is critical
The upbringing and socialisation of girls in Nepali society also add up to the stigmatisation, share sociologists. Raut asserts that a girl child in Nepal has been conditioned in such a manner since childhood that she rarely could think of choosing divorce or a second marriage.
“The society we live in, all the religious and cultural orientations have taught us that marriage is a holy union that is eternal and the companionship is bound for seven lives,” shares Raut, “Though with time, a part of society (for example, law) has changed regarding divorce, there still has not been any improvement in the social, economical, cultural, political and religious structures, which all are impacted by patriarchal mindsets. Therefore, women are stigmatised more after divorced.”
Similarly, Sanjog Thakuri, a women rights activist, says, “Since childhood, a girl child is groomed not to have multiple partners and marriage happens only once in a lifetime.”
Also, in Nepali society, it is rooted that women should be protected by men as they cannot protect themselves. Intimate partner violence is also normalised in society and women are often suggested to mediate when they want to separate. All of these conditions contribute to the stigmatisation of divorce, believes Thakuri.
Adding to this, Raut says, especially, women from middle-class and upper-middle-class families are more concerned about losing their husbands’, and their family’s honour rather than their own well-being, contributing further to their own stigmatisation.
Various forms of violence
Psychologist Karuna Kunwar says, based on her counselling experience, that deciding to divorce is tough for both men and women, but is much tougher for women especially when children are involved.
“Most women prefer to live separately than to divorce. They live in a ray of hope that one day, he will change and might return to me. And, some even think that giving divorce is making things easier for him (for another marriage in case he is into extramarital affair), so they resist giving divorce,” shares Kunwar.
Likewise, some women make the decision to divorce when there is a high level of violence and threat to their life and they think sooner is better, she says. While deciding divorce itself is tough, it is natural that women have to suffer a lot of problems after that, she suggests.
Divorced women might have to go through character assassination, accusations and different forms of violence. Moreover, women are often held responsible for the failed marriage as a patriarchal society conditions them to obey everything told by their husbands and tolerate everything.
Predicting such consequences and social stigma associated with divorced women, many women choose to live with the men tolerating any kind of domestic violence, adultery and even polygamy, according to Ghimire. Additionally, neither they could openly share their sufferings to anyone nor could defend themselves, says Raut.
Simultaneously, a divorced woman who has nowhere to go starts to self-blame herself as the parents think that their responsibility towards their daughter is over once she is married off. They can neither make networks nor include themselves in any public sphere or family and social functions, according to Raut.
In addition, “Such stigmatisation affects the individual mentally and thus negatively impacts their grooming and performance in the society,” informs Raut, “They start to devalue themselves; they think that they are out of the social system.”