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Nepal: Women's Day – Political brinksmanship has sacrificed women's rights
Asian Human Rights Commission Statement - March 8, 2012
On 18 February, a 40-year-old woman, Dhegani Mahato was accused of having made one of her family members sick by casting a spell by a local shaman. She was set on fire and killed by her family members; no one intervened to save her. Reports of attacks against isolated women after blaming them of being witches are on the rise in Nepal. In most cases, the perpetrators do not face any charges as the police "convince" the victim to enter into a mediated agreement with the perpetrators. By doing so, the police not only encourage acts of violence against women but condone and further entrench harmful traditional views and practices against women.
Since the end of the conflict in 2006, progress to protect women's rights has been slow and has fallen low on the government agenda. The election of the Constituent Assembly in 2008 was seen as paving the way to increased protection of the women's rights as the Interim Constitution mandated. But the government has so far failed to translate increased representation of women in the legislative assembly into concrete policies to uphold the rights of women and promote gender equality in the country. The failure to protect women from gender-based violence is only the tip of the iceberg of the government's ineptness to promote women's rights, whether civil and political rights or economic, social and cultural ones.
The government of Nepal has failed to show leadership in addressing the issue of violence against women. In spite of repeated calls from the women rights' organisations and the international human rights civil society, including CEDAW, Nepal has failed to repeal the 35-day limitation in filing a case of rape, which has prevented numerous cases from being filed. This provision reflects a poor understanding of the extent of trauma faced by rape victims and of the non-supportive environment in which they find themselves struggling to file their cases. That it has not yet been scrapped speaks at length of the government's neglect to take action to curb violence against women.
As the cases in which women are accused of witchcraft make it abundantly clear, the state is notably failing on two fronts: to guarantee women's access to justice to claim their rights and to adopt comprehensive policies to transform discriminatory and harmful views and practices which constitute violations of the women's rights.
In its December 16, 2011 report to the Human Rights Council, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal writes "Key challenges include the lack of access to justice for women victims, due in part to ineffective implementation of existing laws and policies, the failure of the police to take a gender-sensitive approach and a frequent resort to "mediation". While the law allows for mediation in domestic violence cases with the consent of a victim, OHCHR found that pressure may be exerted on victims to accept mediation rather than to seek criminal justice in relation to other crimes, including sexual violence"
In a regional statement published this morning, the Asian Human Rights Commission has denounced that "While all human rights abuse victims in Asia struggle to obtain legal redress amidst weak rule of law frameworks and corrupt justice officials, victims of gender-based violence face the added difficulties of discrimination and sexual stereotypes, including from the police and the judiciary. It has been observed all over Asia that gender-based violence victims routinely face hostility from law enforcement personnel and the courts". Nepal is no exception.
Indeed, the inadequacies of Nepal's policing system, which is crippled by high levels of corruption, inefficiency and infiltrated by dominant patriarchal values, lie at the heart of the criminal justice's inability to hold violators of women's rights to account. Someone's ability to get justice will depend on how much leverage, in terms of political, personal or economical influence that person has gathered. Women who have in general a lower socio-economic status, fewer connections than men and who have to face the dismissive attitude of police officers, in great majority men, stand little chance to have their case registered, let alone investigated. The situation is even worse when the victim belongs to a community traditionally discriminated against such as the Dalit community. Not benefiting from any protection or recognition from the state institutions, the women human rights defenders who stand up for their rights are vulnerable to threats and attacks. Guaranteeing the access to justice of women victims of violence should be made a matter of priority and should form part of broader reforms aiming at developing a strong, independent and accountable criminal justice system, able to protect the rights of all, without discrimination.
Nevertheless, better laws and a better administration of justice alone will not be sufficient to bring an end to violence against women in Nepal. It is the state responsibility to act to eradicate harmful traditional practices and beliefs, through educational campaigning and through the development of policies aiming at the educational and socio-economical uplifting of women, key to their empowerment. The government should publicly acknowledge the contribution of women human rights defenders to the democratization of the Nepalese society and commit to protect them from attacks. The state of Nepal should immediately adopt such policies to prove that it has not given up that responsibility.
Letting violence against women go unabated carries a high social cost. Violence prevents women from realizing the full spectrum of their rights, slows their journey to emancipation and makes gender equity a distant dream. Fears of facing violence in public areas, followed by societal attitudes blaming victims for their abuse, work to confine women to their homes. How can women participate in the economy and politics, a springboard to ensure their capacity to protect their rights, if they are at risk and then blamed for doing so?
Nepal cannot afford to postpone the defence of women's rights and the struggle against gender-based violence in favour of political considerations any longer. It is time to act now.
The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.