A Witness to History Unfolding: Amendment of the Rape Laws

As I sat with full decorum, back straight, eyes slightly downcast with the frays of my now-worn out kabney neatly tucked under me on the soft spongy armchair and the benevolently commanding, invisible presence of our King on the Golden Throne in front of me, I wondered whether the 10th of December, 2019 had been as cold as today which was exactly a year ago.

I thought about the shock that the teacher must have felt course through the body when Dena Koirala’s body was discovered by the stream on the way to Dechenphu Lhakhang (Dechenphu Temple), strangulated and later mauled by an animal at several places (right cheek, hips, right thigh and abdomen); I thought about the pain that the search party would have experienced in having to tell the girl’s parents about what they had discovered;

But most of all, I was completely possessed thinking about the indescribable pain and the unspeakable fear that Dena must have felt as she died at the tender age of nine in such a gruesome and disturbingly unforgettable way.

It was only when the Speaker of the National Assembly of Bhutan spoke with the authority and the masterful skill of an exemplary moderator that I was transported back into the decorated room of Orange and Blue Scarfs; “I would like to now offer the opportunity to the Representative from Punakha”.

Photo: DTNext

Dasho Lhaki Dolma stood up, thanked the Speaker for the opportunity granted (a simple but nonetheless symbolic gesture affirming the civility within the House) and began, “There were concerns raised as to whether increasing the grading of severity will lead to the reduction of rape cases in the country … The Penal Code of Bhutan was drafted in 2004, of which

the sections pertaining to rape have not been revised in the last 16 years.

Because of this very fact, I believe the number of rape cases have been on the rise la”.

At this, a few numbers came bubbling up to the forefront of my mind; numbers that I had read a couple of days before in a Kuensel (national newspaper) article on a study conducted by NCWC (National Commission for Women & Children):

Which means on any given month, at least 4 Bhutanese women or even worse, a child goes through the fear and pain that Dena suffered so cruelly around this day exactly a year ago, within their homes, in the homes of those they trust and in the secluded forests and spaces away from home.

Fear and pain that the rest of us (especially privileged gender, i.e., heterosexual men such as myself) have the luxury of ‘imagining’ and ‘sympathizing’. Needless to say, the actual cases of sexual assault would be much higher than the reported numbers for a simple reason: Who would have the courage to admit to another that their entire being has been violated against their will? That the sacred place within us from where we draw our sense of personhood and freedom has been burned down, shat on?

That a living, breathing, thinking, feeling and sensing so-called-human-being has imprisoned our rich and defining inner life within the prison of the mind, on which there are no visible locks to break free from, forced to re-live the inexhaustible trauma again and again,

scratching the walls in hopes of digging through to get to that glimmer of hope and faith in freedom and self-determination? Not many would be so brave as that.

Photo by G.S. Matthews

Despite the barriers in formal dzongkha, which to my great relief, some MPs expressed was too obscure and against the principle that ‘the law must be so simple as to be understood by even the least educated citizen of the country’, I paid attention with the zeal of a devotee towards their tsawai lam (root guru) and experienced the incredible feeling that I was a small but nevertheless a witness of an incredible moment in history unfolding. That very morning, waiting for my other peers at the second-level parking of the National Assembly building, with my Kabney neatly folded on my right shoulder, I had had the incredible opportunity of engaging with an honorable MP, who had asked me and my two peers if we were attending the session and what had motivated youths like us to be there?

Recognizing the rare moment that it was, I was not hesitant to reply with utmost respect and sincerity, “We are here to support the amendment of the Rape laws la Dasho”. Then, with immense generosity and openness, he told us how the issue had been deliberated on extensively and fiercely in each of the Houses (NA & NC) and then in the joint committee. “Those in opposition are looking at it from the lens of the enormous waste of life’s most productive period that a single mistake could cost for the perpetrators”, he shared. “Moreover, we have had cases of child marriage that were consensual on both parties but nonetheless guilty in the eyes of the law”.

I thanked him for the perspective and replied, “But Dasho la, the statistics surrounding rape cases are stacked overwhelmingly against dependents (i.e. children) and despite the cultural acceptance or rather fluidity towards sexual assault that we might have had in the past, don’t you think that it has become no longer acceptable or tolerable internationally, as well as here in Bhutan la?” “Em bay” he replied and added,

“Well, it’s a democracy so, the views of the majority shall always determine the eventual outcome”.

His last words before he started on his way down to the Parliament struck me as particularly profound since my friend had just asked me what the purpose of us (mere youths) attending was the previous evening. “Will it make a difference?” she had asked. I had found my answer then, “Yes! It will. Maybe not so directly as to have the opportunity to stand and speak but in informing our representatives how we feel and importantly why, on issues such as rape. Without doing what we can to express our voice, it wouldn’t be fair to expect our MPs be represent us since they are no mind-readers”.

The deliberations on sections concerning rape extended, with the Speaker doing full justice to the importance and gravity of the issue by trying to be as inclusive of all perspectives within the room while reminding promptly when an MP would take up too much airtime to be succinct. The deliberations dragged on till a few minutes past 2:00 PM when the parliament broke for lunch. Realizing I had already gone over the half-day leave that I had put up in my office, I drove back quickly to not extend my tardiness. Rushing into the office, I turned my computer on and followed the session live on social media.

During the deliberations, some MPs stated that decision-making should not be swayed by emotions and sentiments but instead by rationality and reason if we are to make laws that benefit the nation;

I couldn’t help but wonder, not only if it was possible to understand the heinous reality of rape but also our core values of happiness and contentment without emotional intelligence and humane sensibilities?

To this end, I found the views put forward by the Tashicholing MP quite powerful in its substance:

“If the honorable Members of the Parliament were not hurt by the death of our two girls last year, I feel it is because the victims were not our relatives la. But as a mother myself, when the two girls passed, like the Health Minister stated earlier, I experienced a lot of mental trauma. As soon as I came across a person whom I didn’t know, I wondered, “if he is a potential rapist”. When I used to see school girls walk towards their school, I wondered, “Aie, will this girl reach her school safely?” “Will she get back home safely?” I still suffer from the trauma, triggered by the incident la”.

Photo by The Bhutanese

The result of all the deliberations and exchanges within the sacred marketplace of ideas that is our Parliament came by in a swift and seemingly insignificant yet hugely symbolic manner; through the raising of hands with an overwhelming majority. I got reminded of a simple memory from earlier; my friend had remarked during tea break how she had found this the most surprising, that the most important decisions concerning the fate of our nation was carried out in such a simple manner. “I suppose it is to ensure full transparency on which MPs vote which way, which is at the heart of an uncorrupted democracy”, I had offered my thoughts.


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