A different shade of red in Nepal

Rosemary Bechler
8 June 2006

Events are moving so fast in Nepal that Lily Thapa decided to leave London early. With a Code of Conduct being drawn up between the new government coalition and the Maoist insurgents, as she says, "If they need me and my experience, I will be there!" So far the Maoist negotiators have one woman on their team: the government, none. She is not convinced this will change. But she is campaigning for a seat at the peace table nevertheless, on behalf of the widows and wives of the missing, who make up many of the surviving victims of a conflict which has claimed over thirteen thousand lives in the last decade.

Lily was in the UK for last week's Wilton Park conference on implementing United Nations Resolution 1325 for the equal participation of women in conflict resolution and peace-building. Her account of the experience of young widows in Nepal was a good test case for the assembled dignitaries and policy gurus. It is a story that began long before there was any glimmer of a peace process on the Nepalese horizon.

Recent articles by Rosemary Bechler in the openDemocracy debate "Resolution 1325: does it make any difference?":

"Fiji's peace in a suitcase" (6 June 2006)

"Fighting Iraq's new Taliban" (8 June 2006)

For an overview of the debate click here

Lily was a young mother when her husband was killed while serving as a UN peacekeeper in the 1991 Gulf war. She found herself a victim of the 'social death' to which many bereaved women are subjected in regions of south and south-east Asia and Africa. Religious and cultural proscriptions have sprung up to replace outlawed practices like sati – where the wife must be burned alive on her husband's funeral pyre, or buried alive in his grave – treating the widow figure as a bringer of bad luck and a danger to the community. As a sexual being no longer under the control of a father or husband, she is constrained by measures such as diet codes and colour codes. She must sleep on the floor. She is banned from public ceremonies and from talking to men. She must only eat vegetarian food, and she must not wear colourful clothes or jewellery. After being attacked by a local group armed with a hammer for failing to remove the nose-ring her parents had given her as a child, Lily resolved to build a movement for widows. In Nepal it is called the Single Women's Group – because the word for widow still invokes stigma and shame.

Such widows often find that their fate and the fate of the children for whom they are now solely responsible lies in the hands of male members of their husband's families. Many lose their inheritance, land or property and fall victim to violence or sexual abuse. The insecurity that accompanies conflict only worsens this situation: they are now at the mercy of the hostile forces, and suffer rejection by their families, internal displacement, rape and sex-trafficking to India, if they are not left for dead. Lily has struggled for thirty years to highlight their deepening plight and enable them to begin rebuilding their lives. In the last two years, her widows' movement has launched a defiant new initiative – wearing red dresses.

In 1994 she established the Women for Human Rights-Single Women's Group (WHR-SWG) as a campaigning base and training centre for widows. With over one hundred and five branches and fourteen thousand members, it is the only women's NGO in the country that educates and informs women about UN Resolution 1325, translating it into all the local languages. And interestingly, it is the only Nepali NGO to work with Maoists as well as army and police widows on the other side.

"Women from all sides of the conflict work together in our groups. We don't discriminate on the basis of who their husbands were or what their politics are. Once they join they are only 'the widows'. That is how we could operate quite effectively while there was a Maoist insurgency. So this is a kind of peace process in itself. But there is nothing easy about this – it is a challenge." Training ensures that such encounters have a better chance of working from the start.

The Maoists see how the group helps their widows. Lily thinks these seeds of reconciliation have a vital contribution to make to Nepal's changing political culture. "These changes were not brought about just by the political parties but by the whole of civil society. This makes us far more hopeful than in the past. There is a huge women's movement trying to bring democracy to Nepal. Our groups joined many other women's groups in the streets, demonstrating and demanding change."

Lily's organisation has already impacted on the political process. She gathers data on the situation in which her widows find themselves, filling in large information gaps. This mapping has attracted the attention of the UN, which finds a similar dearth of reliable data in Iraq and Afghanistan too. With the Opportunity Fund, she set up a centre for internally displaced women and children. Her campaigning has altered the laws on inheritance, pensions, custody and citizenship in Nepal: the poverty of widowhood even figures in the tenth Nepalese five-year plan.

After wrestling with her conscience and discussing with colleagues the possibility of seeming to have 'joined the King's party', Lily accepted an invitation to join the five-member Women's Commission appointed by the Ministry of Women in March, after two years of frustrating inactivity and delay. But the King changed his mind too late – within weeks he and the Women's Commission were both part of history.

Last week's conference on UN Resolution 1325 was the 816th Wilton Park Conference, organised in co-operation with the UK Government's Global Conflict Prevention Pool, the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Canadian International Development Agency, and in partnership with Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS).

Last week, the restored House of Representatives declared that a child's citizenship can be registered in the name of the mother or the father; pledged to reserve thirty-three percent of places in the civil service for women; and agreed to revise all the 139 other laws that treat women as lesser than men. Nevertheless, Lily is aware how far there is to go before enough key people in Nepal understand the implications of Resolution 1325.

"We are calling for the presence of women on the forthcoming peace committee but so far our advocacy has been ignored. I don't think there is much chance – but I am trying my best! It is vital that the peacekeepers and the military and security forces understand the role that women play in conflict resolution."

So did the Wilton Park conference give cause for hope? Her response reveals a familiar impatience with the contrast between the rhetoric and the implementation of 1325. "There was a real lack of people who work on the ground as I do. Most of the participants work on policy, and are unaware of the real grassroots problems people face. I and one or two others tried to clarify the practical obstacles. So they learnt a great deal from us!"

Nor is she convinced that the international community realises how urgently humanitarian assistance is needed to help turn her war-torn country around. But she has achieved something remarkable in Wilton Park: she did not go back to Nepal entirely empty-handed.

"I was talking to my colleagues about women's exclusion from negotiations in Nepal. They said, why don't you ask all the important people here to add their voice to yours? Everyone was so positive. People who never sign petitioning letters wanted to sign this time, recognising that women must be fully involved in rebuilding Nepal. People were happy to send this message to the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, urging him to put pressure on the new government to ensure that women participate fully in the peace process. As soon as I get back I will give this letter to the press, to the UNDP Residents' Representative in Nepal, to our Prime Minister, and put it on the website too…"

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