08 September, 2006

War-Torn Shangri-La

War-torn Shangri-La
Danger at the roof of the world

by Sushma Joshi

As Ms. went to press, at least 13 people had been killed in demonstrations in Nepal and hundreds of thousands had flooded the streets of Kathmandu demanding the return of democracy. Consequently, parliament, dissolved by King Gyanendra in February 2005, was reinstated. The people also demanded a redrafting of the constitution to eliminate the monarchy’s far-reaching powers. The king’s curfews, arrests and seizure of absolute control were done ostensibly to secure the country from a 10-year insurgency by Maoist rebels—who have now agreed to peace talks with the reinstated parliament and new government. Ms. assigned Sushma Joshi to report on what has been happening to women.

Eline Henry, a 33-year-old French schoolteacher, loved Nepal so much she planned to extend her vacation in Kathmandu and volunteer at a children’s organization. “The people are so friendly,” she wrote her family. Then, on September 3, 2005, she disappeared. Her name was found in the entry register of Nagarjun, a forest in Kathmandu where the Royal Nepal Army had an encampment. Six weeks later, Sabine Gruneklee of Germany disappeared from the same place. A French investigation team found women’s blood-stained clothes in the forest.

The two cases brought international attention to what local human-rights observers already knew: The lovely Himalayan kingdom of Nepal is an increasingly violent and deadly place, especially for women, foreign and local.

Since 1996, when armed Maoist rebels declared a People’s War, more than 12,000 unnatural deaths have occurred. Unreported deaths push the figure much higher. About one-fourth are estimated to be women; approximately 300 are children. Women have been killed by both Maoists and the Royal Nepal Army during the conflict. Maoists have targeted political opponents, abducting and killing them. The army has “disappeared,” raped and extrajudicially executed girls and women suspected of being Maoists. Both sides have used torture.

Dalit communities have been especially vulnerable. Dalit means “oppressed,” the now-preferred term for people of lower castes previously called Untouchables.) The Feminist Dalit Organization (FEDO, www.fe donepal.org) reports that in 2002, a 13-year-old Dalit girl was taken by security forces. She was the youngest person to be disappeared. Another Dalit girl, 15-year-old Maina Sunuwar, was killed along with her 18-year-old cousin, Reena Rasaili, in 2004. Rasaili, accused of being a Maoist, was raped by soldiers for five hours, then executed. The Royal Nepal Army, after much public pressure, admitted Sunuwar had been killed, but her body remains missing.

“These cases are fairly common,” says one human-rights activist who prefers to remain nameless. “The bodies are cremated on the spot, and there are no reliable records.” But other acts of impunity by soldiers are well-documented. In December 2005, a drunken soldier shot dead 11 people gathered to worship at a temple. A quarrel had started after the soldier harassed a girl. The military has no policy against sexual harassment, and rape by soldiers has never been punished by a military court.

Large numbers of young women have been recruited into the People’s War, putting them at risk of sexual violence from security forces. The Maoists have all-female brigades, composed of young rural women recruits with few options for employment. As a U.N. researcher, I visited a jail where two dozen political prisoners were incarcerated. The girls, in their teens and early 20s, still professed a desire to do something for their country, and said they would rejoin the People’s War if released.

Average Nepali women who have survived the violence must care for their families—often alone—in what is already a poor country. Large-scale Maoist attacks have killed police and soldiers in high numbers, leaving thousands of single-mother-headed households. The women often have only the $10,000 (approximately) onetime compensation the government gives them, which must sometimes be shared among two or more wives and numerous children.

Women for Human Rights, a group that helps widows from both sides, says that since the conflict started it has worked with 14,000 women in support groups in 30 districts— numbers that rose steeply last year. Widows prefer to migrate to Kathmandu to escape being ostracized (as husbandless) by their families, but have a difficult time establishing themselves in the capital. Most are not educated; many are adolescent single mothers.

Besides disrupting family, schooling, food supplies and communities’ livelihoods, the conflict in Nepal has added the trauma of not knowing what has become of loved ones. “I want to know what happened to my daughter’s body,” says Devi Sunuwar, who bravely asked the Kavre District Police office to investigate her daughter Maina’s murder.

With the return of a democratic government, social-justice advocates hope the legal system can address such violations in an accountable, just manner. The constitution must be rewritten, the army put under civilian control and the draconian Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Ordinance suspended.

But it is far from clear whether the conflict has come to an end. The Maoists are asking for a constituent assembly that would possibly end the monarchy and turn Nepal into a republic. Meanwhile, women persist, working at the forefront of the human-rights movement here. But until the fighting ends and the country transitions, women remain at risk in Nepal.