Sexual harassment among least reported sexual offences

A man flashing his penis to women is dismissed as someone being mad and that the women should avoid being in his path.

A man in an atsara’s mask during Tshechus, groping women and forcing them to kiss him and sleep with him in gory detail, is excused as being someone in character. The women are expected to indulge him.

There are men sneaking in kissing emojis in professional texts to women. The women are accused of overreacting if they were not okay with such texts.

There are men and boys pulling bra straps and pinching the bottoms of women and girls especially in schools. This is normal because it has happened before.

The Penal Code of Bhutan defines a person to be guilty of sexual harassment under Section 205 “if the defendant makes unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal abuse of sexual nature.” By this definition, all the cases described above are sexual harassment.

But sexual harassment cases are rarely reported. In the last decade, of the 745 sexual offences reported to the RBP, only 89 were cases of sexual harassment.

Although Section 206 in the Penal Code also states that, “The offence of sexual harassment shall be a petty misdemeanor,” many cases are withdrawn due to social stigma and intimidation by perpetrators or unreported because many Bhutanese do not even know what constitutes sexual harassment.

In a case reported to the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) and the RBP, last year: Two elderly non-nationals had molested two female hotel receptionists. The incident had taken place when the receptionists were collecting their bills. The receptionists cried and yelled for help forcing the men to leave the hotel premises. All of this was captured on the hotel’s CCTV and submitted to the RBP.

The perpetrators were apprehended the next morning. However, both receptionists withdrew the case out of sympathy towards the wives of the men who had begged them to drop the case.

Yeshey Lham, Chief Programme Officer at NCWC, attributes under-reporting of sexual offences to social and cultural stigma. She adds that victims often do not report sexual offences because of the lengthy legal process. They first need to go to the police, then to court, and many feel humiliated by the experience.

“I think we women endure it as if it is culturally accepted – the eve teasing and the unwelcome behavior. If one or two women stand up for themselves and realize they do not have to tolerate such behavior then it will be enough to reduce if not eliminate sexual harassment against women and give other women the courage to do the same,” says Lham.

14 molestation cases and four sexual harassment cases have been reported to NCWC from 2018 till November 2019.

Despite sexual harassment being a daily occurrence at homes, schools, and at work places,RENEW has not seen many cases of sexual harassment, shares Rinchen, a senior counselor. They have dealt with one sexual harassment complaint from a man, and a number of child molestation cases.

Stories of women and girls blackmailing men with sexual harassment/ rape are rife on social media, but only four such cases have been reported to the RBP’s Women and Child Protection Desk, shares Major Karma Rigzin. All cases (three in Thimphu and one in Paro) were dropped as the men involved were married.

There have been increasing reports in the media on molestation and rape as well. Many have called for stricter laws and even capital punishment in the wake of horrifying rape and molestation stories.

There are counselors like Rinchen who advocate for the rehabilitation of sex offenders. According to the American Psychological Association, sex offender therapy coupled with tough laws can prevent recidivism.

Section 25 in the Penal Code states “If a defendant is found to be clinically insane or suffering from a mental abnormality or chronic condition that significantly impairs the defendant’s capacity to make sagacious judgments, a Court shall, in lieu of imprisonment, order the civil commitment of the defendant to a hospital or other institution for psychiatric or other rehabilitative treatment.”

Neither RENEW nor the psychiatric ward at the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH) have seen perpetrators mandated by court for therapy so far.

A JDWNRH psychiatrist explains that sex offenders are like drug addicts. The pleasure they derive from their sexual acts whether consensual or not activate a pleasure pathway in the brain, which they get addicted to.

Many sex offenders are unfortunately released back into society with their sexual tendencies intact. The vice principal who molested multiple female students did not have a criminal record despite having faced a civil suit that included sexual violence.

Family and child bench Drangpon Pasang Wangmo supports the existence of a Sex Offender Registry. “There is no legal tool at the moment for a sex offender registry. It is very important to have a sex offender registry, especially to protect our young students. A registry will ensure sex offenders are not employed in schools.”

The Royal Civil Service Commission opened a “well-being division” in June 2018 for civil servants who encounter sexual/ workplace harassment.

“There are four people in the well-being division who provide counselling and look after the well-being of civil servants dealing with depression, alcoholism, suicidal thoughts and workplace harassment,” shares Roshmi, a member of the well-being division. The division has not had any cases of sexual harassment reported till date.

Major Rigzin says social media is playing an important role in increasing awareness on sexual offences. She believes social media could encourage more people to report sexual crimes especially sexual harassment.

“Victims do not need to be scared of the perpetrator and not report the offence because they have support not only from the Police, NCWC, and RENEW, but also from the Penal Code of Bhutan,” says Major Rigzin.

Call NCWC’s 24/7 tollfree helpline 1098 to report sexual violence or to seek help.This story is supported by BMF’s Investigative Reporting Grant.

Namgay Zam and Kelden Lhamo Gurung