The molestation of two Bhutanese women in Bangalore has sparked Bhutan’s own debate on the safety of its female students and professionals who are studying or working outside its borders.
However, while what happens outside our borders are outside our control, there is a lot more to be concerned about what is happening in our own backyard.
Local media headlines, with growing regularity, report on sexual violence committed against our own women and children.
In Bhutan, an interesting trend in the rape and sexual abuse cases is that it is perpetrated mainly against vulnerable women in society who are disabled, very young and from a poor socio-economic background.
For all the talk of women’s participation in our society, Bhutanese society is a male dominated society and, therefore, male notions on sexuality prevail.
One such notion is ‘night hunting’ which is mistakenly identified with rural tradition. The notion that night hunting is a ‘romantic liaison’ between two willing lovers stands only for a few cases. By and large, the act of night hunting in many cases is equivalent to legal rape.
A stronger male forcing himself on a sleeping and unaware woman against her will is rape, and cannot and should not be couched in any notions of tradition or accepted social behavior.
If night hunting is tradition then desperate men should also attempt a ‘night hunt’ at the home of a powerful local official or local leader in order to also not leave them out of traditional values. The men in all probability will either be jailed or suffer other consequences.
Night hunting as an act of rape is an exertion of the male’s power over women. The fact that most night hunts are committed against poor farmers or vulnerable women shows the real nature and intent of this act.
In the same rural areas it is again no secret that poor, vulnerable and impressionable rural girls fall victim to travelling and passing sexual predators for false promises and at times money. It is also an open secret that until recently it was common practice for some dignitaries and bureaucrats visiting rural areas to get a ‘nightly companion’. The high incidences of single mothers with fatherless children in some of the most backward areas in Bhutan stand testimony to this.
When such exploitation of the fairer sex is so widely prevalent it is no wonder that rapes and other sexual crimes are a frequent occurrence in Bhutan.
Rape and sexual exploitation, as has been shown by various international studies is not only a crime of passion but is also a crime of power and control.
In our society the power equation is still heavily skewed in favor of men. Also, in a semi-feudal society like ours, power can often be correlated to sexual power over women.
The most sickening and troubling trend of sexual violence is against young girls who in some cases are only a few months old.
The perpetrators in many rape cases are those known to the children as family members, acquaintances and neighbors.
Far from acting on these problems and trends we as a society have not even recognized these as being serious problems affecting our society.
A Parliament dominated largely by male MP’s lowering the age of consent may be dictated by a male sense of practicality, but it does not bode well for maternal health and protection of young women.
Sexual violence and exploitation is also increasing in urban areas with economic migration. There are many horror stories of young and underage maids becoming pregnant or being sexually exploited by their male employers.
There are also increasing instances of older and more well off men exploiting young and at times underage girls through economic means like money, jobs etc.
It is also no secret that many work places in Bhutan both in the private and public sector are not friendly for women and are at times also unsafe. Lewd comments and at times even lewd touches are treated as light affairs even among the educated regardless of how the women feel on the other end.
A lot of morals and values are taught at home but it is clear what is not being taught at home when young students barely into their teens make sexually explicit gestures and comments against their classmates.
It is clear that we as a society have to do more in respecting women and their rights.
There is no doubt that with education and awareness things are considerably much better than in the past, but Bhutan as a society can do better.
It is an open secret that Bhutan is not a society of prudes and is a liberal society. This is a positive as there is no vilification of sex as a natural occurrence; women can chose their life partners and we don’t lock our women up at home or behind veils.
However, an important trademark of a liberal and healthy society is also not to treat women just as objects to be controlled or owned. Women must be treated as equal partners and their rights and space must be respected for our own collective selves.
“Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.”