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FRIDAY FILE – A decade-long conflict, sluggish peace and reconciliation process and delays in developing a new constitution, leave women human rights defenders in Nepal at great risk.
By Katherine Ronderos
During the decade-long armed conflict (1996-2006) between government forces and Maoist rebels to end the monarchy in Nepal, at least 13,000 people were killed and over 1,600 became victims of “disappearances”. Although the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in 2006, formally ended the insurgency, Maoists continued to press for abolition of the monarchy, emerging as the largest parliamentary party after elections in April 2008 and finally abolishing the monarchy a month later. The first Constituent Assembly (CA) and Parliament, with 601 members including 91 women, elected in April 2008, with a mandate to draft a new Constitution within two years, was dissolved in May 2012 after deadlocking over drafting of the new constitution, leaving the country without a legislature. The absence of political consensus has since forced several deadline extensions for a new election of the Constituent Assembly, now scheduled for 19thNovember 2013, with the CA to double as Parliament.
Nepal’s seven-year peace process between government forces and Maoist combatants remains in limbo, and human rights commitments undertaken in the peace accord’s remained unfulfilled. Impunity for wartime abuses is the norm, and although the government advocates for establishing a truth and reconciliation commission, it has promoted government officials and security force members suspected of involvement in human rights abuses. This political turmoil, along with weak governance, lack of rule of law, corruption, and impunity, have all contributed to ongoing political instability and problems with law and order.
Advancement of women’s rights lacks political will
Despite that Nepalese politics appears promising for women on paper, with the Interim Constitution providing protective policies that addresses women’s rights, and a reservation policy for the representation of women in various sectors, the reality is that neither the government nor any political parties have taken significant action to implement this promise.
The Government and the current Interim Constitution recognize the socioeconomic disadvantages and discrimination that women face in Nepal, and incorporate specific provisions to provide support to women. In 2006, the interim parliament announced 33% of roles in the state’s institutions would be allocated to women, but this has not yet been implemented.
Nepali women continue to face the impacts of conflict. Questions of the whereabouts of their disappeared husbands, sons and daughters remain unanswered. Many who were internally displaced, forced to leave schools, or compelled to look for non-agriculture based employment were exploited due to their socio-economic conditions and those involved as former combatants have faced rejection from their communities and societies.
But there have been positive changes in gender roles and identities in the country since the peace process began and many of these changes have been possible due to the work of women human rights defenders (WHRDs) who promote implementation of national laws and policies addressing women’s rights as well as international conventions and treaties that have been signed by the Government of Nepal.
WHRD’s work, both at the community and national levels, has been successful due to strong lobbying and advocacy through NGOs and civil society, although women continue to be viewed as beneficiaries, rather than decision-makers capable of creating changes. Both in times of conflict and post conflict, incidences of violence against women including cases of domestic violence, sexual violence and exploitation and gender discrimination, fuelled by patriarchal norms and values, have severely hindered women’s capacities to realize their potential. Culturally discriminatory biases have also prevented women from participating in policy and decision-making processes. Nonetheless, over the years WHRDs and the women’s movement in Nepal has strengthened. With more and diverse WHRDs, from the central to the grassroots, becoming aware of their rights, organizing and actively seeking the fulfillment of their rights, the movement has gained momentum.
Various networks of women’s organizations have also played a pivotal role in bringing together the collective voices and actions of women, and consolidating their aspirations to jointly advocate for a policy-making environment that is non-discriminatory and receptive to women’s rights.
General awareness about human rights and women’s rights issues and the numerous roles played by WHRDs in the peace process and the political arena, contributed to the formulation of the Domestic Violence Act in 2010. While 2010 was also declared the Year Against Gender Based Violence by the government these advancements have not prevented women from continuing to face violence in all its different forms. Discrimination in schools, sexual assault and domestic violence remain a serious concern for WHRDs. In an interview with AWID Renu Rajbhandari, Founder Chairperson of Women's Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC Nepal), said WHRDs have pushed to incorporate violence against women (VAW) in the process of the Interim Constitution and in the transition peace period, and although it has been debated, it has not been integrated because it is not seen as a priority, she adds “No political party is championing the elimination of violence against women and prefer to remain silent”.
Attacks against WHRDs
Nepalese WHRDs such as Shyam Sah, chairperson of the NGO Mukti Nepal and recipient of the 2012 Human Rights price by the Embassy of France in Nepal for the cause of women’s rights, working on issues including witchcraft accusation, domestic violence, rape, dowry demands and polygamy, has acknowledged that WHRDs have stepped forward to protect women’s rights because of a lack of trust in the police. Most threats to WHRD’s work come from families, communities and illegal armed actors that may be linked to police. When Sah intervened in a polygamous marriage she was attacked in full view of the police.
Bimala Tamang, treasurer of the National Alliance of Women Human Rights Defenders (NAWHRD), a WHRDs defending housing rights, received threats and was forced into hiding after protesting actions allegedly taken by the Government of Nepal to forcibly evict almost 8,000 persons living on the banks of the Bagmati River without effective consultation with affected communities, and with no offer of alternative accommodation.
In 2012, while defending a case of divorce for domestic violence, the leading women's rights organizations WOREC Nepal and Mitini Nepal and their staff members received threatening phone calls and visits to their premises, by the police, the husband and relatives of the victim, causing concern for the safety of the victim and those protecting her. According to Rajbhandari, the husband attacked a WOREC team member and the police did not intervene, instead they asked why WOREC was supporting this case.
WHRDs at the grassroots level, who mainly work to defend women from violence, do not receive public recognition and face constant threats from perpetrators, including, society in general and local political parties, mainly led by men. Perpetrators of violence against WHRDs oppose the work of WHRDs, who are constantly pressurising the government to act and end impunity. Although WHRDs have been successful in bringing justice, and there is some recognition of their work, they are seen as “problem creators” or “trouble makers” according to Rajbhandari.
Challenges for WHRDs in Nepal
According to Rajbhandari, WHRDs in Nepal are more at risk when defending women accused of sorcery or witchcraft, sexual and reproductive rights, housing and land rights, domestic violence, gender identity and sexual orientation, and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Despite government’s acceptance of the Universal Periodic Review recommendations to guarantee security for Women Human Rights Defenders, in June 2011, “we don't have specific laws to protect human rights defenders. We don't have particular national mechanism to protect defenders. If something happens to us, the case goes to Police as a general case”, says Rajbhandari.
In its 2012 submission to the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, regarding the use of legislation, including criminal legislation, to regulate the activities and work of human rights defenders, NAWHRD expressed that restrictions to freedom of speech and association have mainly been prescribed by government policies and officials, and they are becoming a great obstacle for WHRDs when they protest, march or support a political uprising or movement.
WHRDs who are publicly threatened, harassed or attacked either have to leave the country or go into hiding inside the country for their own security. The support and solidarity from international human rights and women’s rights organizations has been pivotal for their protection and to ensuring government accountability when bringing the cases to justice. Although WHRDs continue lobbying the government for specific mechanisms and guarantees of security they “very much rely mainly on women’s networks, which are very strong, and the international solidarity for protection” says Rajbhandari.
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