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Nepal: Rising In The Himalayas

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Nepal Says Stop Violence Against Women

By Pamela Philipose

Kathmandu (Women's Feature Service) - Nepal is a country in transition. Whether it is the four lane highway that links Tribhuvan International Airport to the capital city of Kathmandu, or the innumerable new concrete constructions that intrude into the jade green rice fields of the country's rural hinterland, there are signs of change everywhere.

And it is not just about asphalt and concrete. There has been a significant evolution in the social landscape, too. The end of the monarchy and the emergence of a democratic order, shambolic though it may be, has brought about significant changes in terms of gender representation in politics. Women constitute 33 per cent Nepal's constituent assembly and it is one of the few countries in the world to recognise the rights of the gay community and to have a women's cell in the Prime Minister's Office. A raft of progressive legislation, including a law to address domestic violence, is now in place.

But amidst these glimmers of social transformation and hope, the landlocked Himalayan country continues to be weighed down by a deeply gender-unequal feudal legacy and steadily rising levels of violence against women and children.

Lily Thapa, whose organisation, Women for Human Rights, has been working for the rights of widows, put it this way, "The stigma widows in Nepal face is overpowering. Innumerable inhuman practices, masquerading under the guise of religion, abound. We continue to have many cases of widowed women being raped by their fathers-in-law and brothers-in-law, as well as of HIV widows, who have lost both their husband and their sense of physical well-being after having being infected by their migrant husbands with what they still term as 'Bombaiya rog' (Bombay sickness)."

A recent study by an international NGO, Action Aid, in Nepal's Siraha district, revealed 18 cases of women having been accused of witchcraft, branded with hot irons and fed excreta. Action Aid's Mona Sherpa is concerned that such women have no real recourse to justice. "Only two cases out of those 18 even got registered in police records. There was the recent well-known case of Suntali Dhami, a woman police officer who was gang-raped by six of her own colleagues. Three of them walked free after being presumed innocent because they had not consumed alcohol. What kind of justice is this?" she asked.

It is against this background that several organisations came together to launch Nepal's 'One Billion Rising' (OBR) campaign on September 23. American feminist and theatre person Eve Ensler conceived this unique global campaign based on statistics put out by the UN that one-in-three woman is assaulted in her lifetime, a figure that translates into one billion women worldwide. To counter such violence, Ensler has called for a billion people - men, women and children - around the world to rise up together against such violence on February 14 next year, which has been designated as OBR day. As Ensler explained in her recent article in 'The Guardian', she hopes that as the OBR campaign unfolds it will link "issues and stories and villages and cities to the dancing". More than 160 countries in the world have already signed on.

OBR's South Asian coordinator, Sangat - an organisation working on issues of women's rights and peace - anchored the Nepal launch. Remarked Kamla Bhasin, Sangat founder, speaking on the occasion, "What is the meaning of democracy if today one in three women suffers rape and violence? Imagine what we would feel like when a billion people will rise against it?" She hoped that the rising of one billion will make the earth move "by uniting us through dance and protest across every country".

Her words were greeted with applause in the packed Administrative Staff College auditorium at the heart of Kathmandu. The enthusiasm was infectious with even former prime minister Madhav Nepal, sitting near the stage, wearing a broad smile of approval, while noted women activists from all over South Asia - Anis Haroon, Pakistan's former chairperson of the National Commission for Women, human rights defender Sunila Abeysekera from Sri Lanka and Kushi Kabir, who has worked extensively with rural women in Bangladesh through her organisation, Nijera Kori - looked on.

For Nepal, the times called for change. Rita Thapa, feminist activist and founder of Tewa, was outspoken in her criticism of the overt politicisation of Nepal's social structures, the impunity of its elite, the corruption within the system and the insurmountable survival challenges facing ordinary people. In the context of the OBR campaign, Thapa said, "If we have learnt anything today, it is the need to come together, not just within Nepal but throughout South Asia. If we don't do something dramatically different we will all be swept away."

Sapana Pradhan Malla, feminist lawyer and politician, referred to new forms of violence emerging in contemporary Nepal - including the rising number of honour killings and the decrease in the sex ratio. As a member of the Constituent Assembly, Malla had struggled to bring a women's rights perspective to the envisioning the constitutional framework. She revealed how the word "patriarchy", for instance, found its way into the draft constitution after a unanimous consensus was achieved on it.

These new assertions coexist with age-old discriminations and practices, like the inhuman treatment accorded to menstruating women in western Nepal because they are considered "unclean". This is why it is important that a campaign like OBR strikes a chord, especially among young people.

Bimala Ghimire, secretary of the Mahila Adhikar Manch, Nepal's largest network of women's organization, underlined the need to involve girls and rural women in such a campaign, "Dowry deaths, which were first confined to some areas in the terai region, now they occur almost everywhere in Nepal. We have, for instance, cases of schoolgirls being raped by their teachers or older students. The new generation has to be made more aware and a campaign like OBR - with its slogan 'strike, dance, rise' - is therefore extremely important." Ghimire plans to take the campaign to the furthest corners of Nepal. "We will indeed strike, dance, rise at every level - national, district, village, community," she said.

As the OBR launch, compered by well-known women's activist Bandana Rana, wound to an end, after the speeches were delivered and the politicians had made their pledges; after the slogans were raised and songs were sung, it was the time to dance. At that point young Rashmi Kharel, dressed in the colourful garments of a hill tribal, was assisted to the stage. Soon music filled the air and the young woman was swirling to its cadences. As a schoolgirl of seven she had survived a near fatal bus accident but was left with an amputated leg. Over the years, she taught herself to dance on one leg with all the grace of any professional dancer. In her courage and never-say-die spirit, she seemed to embody the OBR campaign that is seeking equality and justice against the greatest of odds.

At the end of the performance, Kharel smiled broadly and said, "I want to rise and dance. I may be disabled but nothing can stop me from dancing for this campaign!"

(© Women's Feature Service)