Bhutan has had its own version of the boy-meets-girl story for a long time.
In parts of the country, a custom called “Bomena” or “night hunting” prevails.
From barely-adult boys to nearly old men, all can, and do, partake in it. In theory,
the custom dictates that after nightfall men can climb over the walls and
windows of a house, and land in a woman’s bedroom. Sometimes it leads to
courtship, multiple scaling of the walls, and even marriage. Sometimes it leads
to a one-night stand, even without the consent of the woman. Pregnant women and
children who don’t know their fathers are often left behind.
The sex ratio in Bhutan is almost equal and the average age of the population is 24. It is a matriarchal society where property is transferred to the daughter of the house. Bomena was seen as an exercise of a woman’s will, a custom where she had the right to choose her partner. Now it is becoming a vehicle of exploitation.
It is a much-debated
issue in the country now, with many voices saying that the practice is
regressive, a social ill, and has no place in modern Bhutan.
Sonam Wangdi, from Trongsa village in central Bhutan, who now works in Thimpu, married a man she met through Bomena.
“Before marriage, I had lost count of the men who had visited me. It’s not about forcing. Men used to come to our place and try to sleep with us. Don’t remember how many came, and how many times they came, but all I remember is that they kept coming and going,” she says.
“While the tradition
gives freedom to the women to choose who they want to be with, there are some
men who force themselves and that is when things become ugly. If a man respects
a woman’s feelings and goes away the moment the woman says no, it would be better.
It is for the exploitation of innocent women that the custom has lost its
Gawa (The other side of the moon), is a new film that has opened old wounds.
It is the story of Gawa, a young woman who sets out on a journey to find her
roots. Her biological mother tells her that she was conceived by an act of rape
and not love.
“It is based on a true story of a 16-year-old boy who shared with me that he doesn’t know who his father is. I could see the pain in his eyes, and felt the need to tell the story of the exploitative side of this courtship culture of night hunting practised in our country. I changed the character from a boy to a girl as I feel women are emotionally stronger than men,” says Chand R C, writer-director of the film.
It took six years to research and shoot the film, and during this period Chand travelled extensively within the country. “It is difficult to ignore when you see a 12-year-old give birth and doctors asks her to breast-feed the baby, and there are no breasts to do so. You cannot look the other way when you see a 52-year- old with nine children from nine men. The cultural tradition has taken an ugly turn and we cannot allow men to be careless. That’s why I felt the need to tell this story and bring this unspoken issue to the forefront,” he says.
Social scientist Dorji Penjore, in his book Love, Courtship and Marriage in rural Bhutan explains: “Bomena is a lengthy and complex process, sometimes lasting a year if it is meant for finding a marriage partner. But it can also be as short as one night affair depending on one’s motive. It is like modern day dating, an institution which helped young ones to find their partners.”
Today it is also an institution that people have serious misgivings about. Chimi Wangmo, Executive Director, Renew, an NGO working for women’s rights which funded Gawa, says: “Even if it is a culture it has to stop as it is being misused and the fundamental human rights of women and young girls are under attack. We wanted to depict the reality through a powerful medium to reach our message across to a larger group of people. Women are suffering in the name of tradition.”
The sex ratio in Bhutan is almost equal (109.1 males for very 100 females) and the average age of the population is 24. It is a matriarchal society where property is transferred to the daughter of the house. Bomena was seen as an exercise of a woman’s will, a custom where she had the right to choose her partner. Now it is becoming a vehicle of exploitation. “During a recent survey it was found that about 770 children in the country have not been able to get the census registration as they don’t know their father. The children don’t even get education as there is no proof of who their father is,” says Chand.
This is where civil society groups have tried to intervene. They help women to identify and find the man who impregnated them, so that legal action for paternity can be taken. Wangmo says once DNA results establish paternity, the courts can order the man to pay 20 per cent of his basic salary as child support till the offspring turns 18.
Bomena has seen condemnation on the Internet too. In March this year, Bhutan saw a spate of online activism. Someone who identified herself as Kesang Chhoden wrote on her Facebook page: “Many untold hardships have been borne by those affected families and I am yet to compile the details. They (women victims) can even tell the names of those wild planters and some of them even tried the second harvest.” The writer posted this message on the Facebook pages of Bhutan’s prime minister and health minister as well. The campaign created a furore. People reacted. Editorials were written, and many joined in the campaign. Then the government intervened, and the chatter died. When I sent an email to the account from which this campaign was mounted, the Royal Government of Bhutan replied. Dessup Rinchin, from the organised volunteer group started by the King of Bhutan to deal with emergency situations, answered from the email account of Kesang Chhoden: “The two girls who used this e-mail are not using the mail any more. They surrendered it to the government. The girls have been educated and now they are not going to talk about anything like this which actually does not happen in Bhutan any more.”
Does it really not happen anymore? The police chief Brigadier Kipchu Namgyel says: “It is an age-old concept which may be prevailing in the rural areas of Bhutan as it is accepted as culture. We do receive complaints and if it is against the will of a person we investigate from the angle of a criminal trespass and it becomes a penal offence. ”
The government is shy of acknowledging it because it claims to not have data. Phintsho Choeden, Executive Director, National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) says: “We still don’t have any evidence that night hunting is the only reason for fatherless children in the country. We need to conduct a study on the issue to gather some evidence. We have to find out how many children born out of wedlock are actually the result of night hunting.”
The organisations dealing with women’s rights like NCWC recognise night hunting as a form of gender bias and discrimination. Even the UNICEF says that night hunting is a form of sexual abuse that women and children face within home, and it defines the practice plainly as “a young man secretly entering the home of a young woman to have sex.”
Most of these cases happen in the villages of Eastern and Central Bhutan. Very often they go unreported. Choeden says that “the women in the villages are not even bothered” as long as the child has been enumerated in the Census, and is eligible for government benefits. Bomena was once considered a romantic custom, where women had the final say. Now, it is giving rise to hatred against men. Tashi Kinley, 30, a mother of two from Dhanni village in the east, hates men. “I don’t even feel like talking to them. I detest them. I have been abused by two of them, and now for me the only aim in life is to bring up my children,” she says. Kinely fell in love at the age of 16 and the man married her after three months of Bomena. He left her after the first son was born. Then came another man in her life, who made false promises and left her pregnant. She is searching for him so he can give his name to the child.
Tandin Dorji, an anthropologist calls it a “beautiful tradition”. According to him, when a boy and girl liked each other, they could only meet in the evenings, as the day kept both of them busy with farming and household chores. “They would meet in the night at the girl’s house. He comes with a few friends or siblings who wait outside and he enters the house from the window. They spend nights like this to know each other. The boy has to leave before the break of dawn. Finally, when they would decide to get married, the boy travels distances to be with his loved one and finally when they decided to marry he would stay on late after sunrise as an announcement of marriage to the parents.”
The tradition, he says, has changed because of the intrusion of urban folk into the villages. “People from towns are visiting villages for projects and they have less time to woo the girl or win her heart, so they pressure her. Visitors give false promises to persuade women. This is not night hunting.”
It is this changing face of the tradition that has become an issue. In his book, Penjore writes: “Bomena is commonly understood to be exploitative at two levels—there is exploitation of women by men and of rural by urban.”
With the developmental
process on the rise, the movement of officials to the interiors is unavoidable.
And this is where things are getting destroyed. Chand points out, ‘No one wants
to talk about night hunting. People know it happens and are also aware of the
dark side of it. If we want to translate the King’s vision of Gross National
Happiness into a reality, then it is important that we stand up to acknowledge
the fact that there is problem in the name of culture, rather than shoving it
under the carpet.’
While women’s organisations are raising it as an issue many in Bhutan still believe in the charm and the openness of the culture. Phurba, 45, a management consultant, who has practised night hunting in his younger days is upset with the women’s groups.
“I hate the word night hunting. It makes me angry to see people misinterpreting an old tradition. We have had an open society where all is accepted. Even women have their bodily needs and it was an open culture where both men and women could satisfy their needs. Then why make it restrictive. Too much is being attached to this tradition. Today dating through other means is acceptable but our age-old dating system is being dumped.”
Phurba dates people even now when he goes to the village but only if the liking is mutual. Of course now he is not willing to climb the walls or jump on roofs to meet his woman. “It is much easier to take your partner to the hotel now than climb two floors in the middle of the night,” he says with a laugh.
Karma Tshering, 43, who got married to his wife Ugen, through Bomena says, “It is through this tradition that I found my wife. We were attracted to each other at a village function. I expressed my desire to be with her. We had mutual feelings and then I started visiting her. It was for a year that we dated each other and then got married she was 18 and I was 19. Before her I saw some other women but it did not work between us and then I found my match.”
So did he not have one-night affairs? He coyly smiles. “It is through trial and error you find a perfect match. At a younger age you want to be with many women. And sometimes you would go to some other village just for fun.” Tshering has also noticed the tradition being exploited.
A case favouring the argument that the transformation of this tradition is causing more harm than good is of Pema Choden Tenzin, a 25-year-old entreprenuer. She still shudders when she remembers that night spent in fear in the college hostel in 2005.
“Since there was no watchman in our hostel it was easy to enter the premises,” she says, “We heard a knock at our window in the middle of the night. There was a man asking us to let him in. He kept assuring us that it was acceptable to let him. I had heard of night hunting happening in rural areas but here I was experiencing it firsthand. It is an exploitative practice and how long can we kept it hidden under culture and traidition?”
While many are silent, the media in recent times has started highlighting this issue. Tashi Dema, a journalist with a leading daily of Bhutan won an award for a story on night hunting. She brought out the trauma of female teachers posted in remote villages who are harassed by men during the nights. “They are traumatised and I felt it was important to write about this issue as no one wants to talk about it,” she says.
Belonging to a village in eastern Bhutan where this practice is prevalent, she has heard horrifying stories of her family and friends. “Every year when I go to the village I hear horrifying stories of the people I know. A friend’s husband went on a night hunting spree and impregnated her cousin. It took a lot of effort to fight for the right of the child. I get to hear such stories all the time,”
Dema says many women embrace this kind of fate. “Many women get impregnated and accept it because they live in a society where this is acceptable. They are suffering and are helpless.”.
The government is slowly realising the need to work on the issue. Sonam Penjor, Senior Programme Officer, NCWC, explains how they have started working with local government functionaries to spread awareness regarding rights and laws. He says, “We have started at the awareness level. We educate the people that this could be violation of rights and laws exist to deal with them.’
Penjor says that
single parents are a big issue for the NCWC, and that in the 11th five year
plan the government plans to conduct a study on single parents.
“We will assess the existence of single parents, why has it increased and is it a rural phenomenon? We don’t have any evidence at the moment and we cannot right away blame night hunting.”
It is this gap that a film like Gawa fills. The Directorate of Education has cleared for the film to be shown in schools. Wangmo says: We are taking this film to schools so that young girls who become victims of this cultural tradition are aware of their rights.”
Penjor talks about some “resistance on the ground” when the culture of Bomena is attacked. It is a new era in Bhutan, with democracy there is a greater assertion of rights. Bomena will find the going tough in this climate.