Not much is known about Bhutan abroad. Even more scarce is literature on gender and sexuality studies. Much of the scholarly works relate to Bhutanese customs and culture. PchiruShelni, involves men having sexual relations with women by stealth, with or without consent, typically by sneaking into a woman’s bed or breaking into their houses under the cover of darkness. PchiruShelni is a sexual practice in rural Bhutan that is entrenched culturally and socially. It is popularly known as ‘Night Hunting’ among people who are literate. The term ‘pchiru’ means night and ‘shelni’ means to wander around (that men wander in search of women).
This PhD research is the first major study on PchiruShelni in Bhutan. PchiruShelni has been mentioned under the name of Night Hunting in smaller studies and was linked to sexually transmitted diseases, promiscuity, multiple sexual partners, early sexual experience and widespread extra marital affairs. The research is aimed at understanding the traditional concept of PchiruShelni that was seen as harmless and mostly positive and a cultural custom. Besides these, there have been recent questions raised in the public arena (traditional and social media for example) that point to a conflict of opinion between those wanting to treat it as an entrenched and socially acceptable practice and those who maintain it is a form of sexual coercion and systemic violence against women.
This study found that PchiruShelni is an accepted form of rural courtship. However, the traditional concept of PchiruShelni has also been misused to perpetrate or excuse sexual coercion. While the women involved are always from rural areas, men come from different backgrounds such as from within the community, neighbouring communities and urban areas.
The popular term ‘Night Hunting’ is likely to have been coined around the time when literate urban men began participating in PchiruShelni and who saw themselves as adopting a traditional form of practice. Thus, there is a difference as well as an overlap between PchiruShelni and Night Hunting practices: the former taking place between rural men and rural women and the latter between urban men and rural women.
Almost all women participants experienced some form of coercion and most of it occurs before women settle down in a marriage. Though some married women are involved, it is largely single women who experience sexual coercion. The most targeted group of women are those who are single and their vulnerability may be exacerbated by poverty and other circumstances such as lack of relative support and women’s inability to understand their rights. The most common form of coercion employed is verbal coercion followed by physical aggression. Women suffer from several negative consequences as a result of coerced sexual relationships.
Sexual coercion in PchiruShelni
Sexual coercion is ‘any situation in which one party uses verbal or physical means to obtain sexual activity against freely given consent’.
There are three primary types of sexual coercion: physical aggression, non-physical and verbal coercion. This study has found that all the above forms of coercion are present in the practice of PchiruShelni.
Risk factors of perpetration and victimisation
Contemporary scholarship documents show that a range of risk factors are associated with violence perpetration and victimisation. This research finds similar factors at work, as follows:
Courtship: Acceptance of PchiruShelni as a rural form of courtship allows sexual coercion under the guise of tradition.
Negative discourses of masculinity: The belief that men have to prove their authority over women through their sexual performances is one of the causes for coercive behaviour. Men have reported that they face peer pressure to demonstrate their sexual prowess through multiple sexual partners.
Socially and culturally condoning attitude: Acceptance of PchiruShelni as part of culture facilitates sexually harassing behaviour. The belief that PchiruShelni is part of a tradition that can lead to a belief that it is justifiable to carry on the practice irrespective of methods involved.
Promiscuity: Belief that women are sexually promiscuous if she had two or more sexual partners regardless of whether the relation was coerced, consensual or based on hearsay and blames women for the perpetration.
Being single: Remaining single for women is a risk factor for being targeted for both consensual as well as non-consensual sex in PchiruShelni and Night Hunting. Continuing to be single seems to contribute significantly to being pursued by men for sex. Many men think single women are more sexually available than married women. This concept arises possibly because of the premise that because a woman cannot protect herself she is inherently ‘available’. Thus ‘singleness’ for a woman is a state where she is not ‘owned’ by a man and the very ability to be without men is seen by some men as alluring and enticing and even tempting, and certainly a reason for that particular woman to come to men’s attention.
Poverty: Women with poor financial backgrounds are easier to pressure into unwanted sexual relationships with the false promises of marriage and gifts.
Lack of support from relatives: Women who do not have strong family backgrounds are harassed more because of the smaller likelihood of charges being pressed in case of negative outcomes from sexually coercive relationships.
Labour shortage: The matrilineal system of inheritance in many parts of Bhutan is both empowering and disempowering for women. While property ownership ensures livelihood security, labour shortages become a problem for women with lack of labour power in the villages. Therefore the most manipulative tactic that men use to coerce women into having sex is the false promise of marriage. Owning a farm is not enough to produce crops. It needs labour: both men and women. Farm work is especially labour intensive where men are needed for the very physically challenging work such as plowing and digging. Women make up for the shortage of men at home by getting married and having the husband take charge of men’s share of work. Thus single women and single mothers comply with men’s demand for sex during PchiruShelni in the hope of acquiring a husband to be able to help around the farm. For many rural women, love becomes secondary and necessity becomes practical.
Impacts of PchiruShelni on women
Women who experienced PchiruShelni (whether voluntarily or through coercion) reported a range of negative impacts. Some are associated with sexual coercion, while others are associated with unwanted pregnancy, single motherhood and other factors. Emotional ill-health, health issues, increase in single motherhood, loss of working opportunities and jeopardising marriage prospects, loss of educational opportunities and marriage break-ups, domestic violence and poverty and citizenship issues also follow suit.
Implications for policy
Some of the recommendations from this research are:
Disassociate PchiruShelni from culture: There should be more awareness reporting by the media as well as communication campaigns by concerned organisations to enable women to differentiate between accepted normal form of sexual relationships and coercion that occurs in the name of tradition. The association of PchiruShelni with traditional practice means that many rural women believe that as a part of that tradition they cannot avoid consensual or non-consensual participation and must allow men to continue to engage in PchiruShelni. Changes in media and communication will allow better reporting of sexual crimes against women.
Amend citizenship law: The most important change that needs to be made in the citizenship law concerns the need to have the father’s name in order for a child to be registered in the census. Irrespective of whether women are victims of sexually coerced relationships in PchiruShelni or victims of other sexual crimes, women should not be made to go through the hardship of tracking down missing fathers of their children. Women as citizens of Bhutan should have the right to register their children as citizens irrespective of who the father is or whether they can be identified, as long as they are born in Bhutan. Bhutan, known for its Gross National Happiness (GNH) philosophy that places people’s well-being before everything and claims that gender discriminations are subtle, fails in its very principle if children cannot enjoy this as a birthright and women cannot have the peace of mind unless their children become confirmed citizens of the country.
Establish social welfare system: There is also a need for the government to introduce social welfare system especially for struggling single mothers whose sexual partners have abandoned them and who do not have reliable relatives to support them.
Increase women’s participation in decision-making roles: Political gender inequalities are created when there is lower participation by women at the decision-making level of government policies. Women’s representation in decision-making roles can empower women in two ways when it comes to PchiruShelni. Firstly, a stronger representation of women in the decision-making process means tougher policies that protect women’s rights which in turn deter men from making unwanted sexual advances towards women. Secondly, women who hold important positions of influence will have more agency, control and autonomy and as research has shown these results in less sexual violence towards women.
Tshering Yangden (PhD)