Maoist fighters like these buried the hatchet with government forces in 2006--but stories of sexual violence by both sides have been buried too. Bimal Sharma / Demotix. All rights reserved.
As the Nepali man told me this story, his wife—let’s call her Devi—started to cry.
“It was during the Emergency. There was so much fear. We did not dare say anything to anyone: police, doctors, no one. I just took care of her. She was in a terrible state, sometimes angry, sometimes weeping,” he said. “For two months, she could barely move. Her body was full of bruises. She was very weak. I took her to hospital, and they gave her three bottles of glucose. But we did not say anything about the rape.”
Eleven years after the rape, this couple still did not want to be publicly identified, fearing retribution. And they still suffer from the trauma they endured.
Nepal’s decade-long conflict between government forces and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) combatants ended with a peace agreement in 2006. While interim compensation has been offered to those left behind by killings and disappearances, the package excludes sexual violence and torture, so such crimes are largely hidden and survivors excluded.
Human Rights Watch interviewed this couple while conducting research for our report Silenced and Forgotten: Survivors of Nepal’s Conflict-Era Sexual Violence, which documents abuses by both sides during the conflict. Most of these crimes remain unreported.
Civilian policing had then pretty much broken down. But even if they dared, victims could not safely travel to lodge a complaint with law-enforcement agencies. And given the perpetrators roaming around, armed with weapons they were willing to use, few were willing to take such a risk.
Women we interviewed described the tense situation at that time, when civilians were caught between Maoists who demanded support, including food and shelter, and government forces that punished anyone who provided it. Some described how members of the security forces raped female combatants after arrest and targeted female relatives or supporters of Maoist suspects. Others said Maoist combatants raped women who refused to support them or women they forcibly recruited to help their insurgency.
In Devi’s case, her husband’s brother was a Maoist. Security forces repeatedly turned up to question the family about his whereabouts and beat his relatives. Devi was raped, possibly as retribution, after repeated questioning over several months, when the family kept insisting that they had no contact with the combatant.
After two elections, with the Maoists now a political party which participates in the democratic arena, some women are finding the courage to speak out. But they are likely still a small minority, with most others isolated and unable to secure justice or redress.
The Nepali government should take immediate measures to encourage women to report these crimes and seek justice. It should develop a reparations programme to address the critical needs of survivors of sexual violence and torture, including long-term health care and livelihood support.
Donors should assist and encourage Nepal to develop proper psycho-social support services for survivors of sexual violence and their families, to help them overcome stigma and fear, and to cope with the consequences of sexual assault and torture during the conflict. Such services are not only important for the overall wellbeing of rape survivors and their families. They can also play a critical part in helping women decide whether they want to seek justice and in supporting them and their families through complex legal procedures.
Nepal’s historically patriarchal society makes it difficult for survivors of sexual violence to speak out about the assault without being stigmatised or blamed.
Nepali law has a 35-day statute of limitations on reporting rape. The Supreme Court has ordered revision of the law, deeming the period “unreasonable” and “unrealistic” and a barrier to justice for rape survivors. The government is apparently considering an extension, but only to 90 days. In light of its international and national obligations, Nepal should eliminate the 35-day limit, as recommended in 2011 by the international committee tasked with monitoring compliance with the UN treaty eliminating discrimination against women.
Even if Nepal were to enact laws ensuring justice for survivors of sexual violence, that would not help the conflict-era victims. But when they signed the peace agreement Nepal’s political leaders committed to justice for human-rights violations, including sexual violence, during the conflict.
A nascent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has a mandate to investigate allegations of conflict-related rape and other forms of sexual violence, and it should adopt a broad approach to investigating such cases. This includes establishing command responsibility to identify perpetrators. The new TRC act says those responsible for sexual violence will not be granted amnesty. The commission should be given adequate powers and resources to engage counsellors and interpreters or special educators, to ensure that all procedures are accessible to sexual-violence survivors, to minimise retraumatisation and to order protection for victims and witnesses.
While women we met were able to say whether their attackers were Maoist rebels or soldiers, they could not name the individuals responsible. Devi, for instance, says she was so badly beaten and brutalised that she was barely conscious. All she knows is that the men who attacked were part of a military search operation and were in uniform.
“They were kicking me, hitting me, pulling my hair,” she told me. “Then they pushed me down on the floor. One of the men unzipped his pants. Then it started. They were holding me down and yelling at me. There were many of them. They were raping me. At some point I must have lost consciousness.
“But when I recovered, they were still there. I was in great pain ... And then I soiled my clothes. One of the men said, ‘Let’s go. She might die.’ It was only then that they stopped … My mother-in-law was crying, saying, ‘Don’t do this. She has a small child.’ But the men shouted abuses at her. I don’t know who they are.”
After the peace agreement, the Maoist brother returned to his village. Devi’s husband cannot bear to meet him any more, angry that his decision to join the Maoists caused his wife such suffering. Devi is still plagued by nightmares and headaches.
Nepal’s historically patriarchal society makes it difficult for survivors of sexual violence to speak out about the assault without being stigmatised or blamed. Given the intimate nature of sexual violence, women are often conditioned by wrong notions of “shame”, which deter them from coming forward to seek justice.
A number of women reported suffering domestic violence because of the rapes. Others had children from the rape. Devi was a rare survivor with a supportive husband, asking that he be present at our meeting.
Access to psycho-social support is important not only for women who were raped but also for their family and community. In some cases, women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they censored themselves for fear of being mistreated or rejected by their husbands and in-laws. In some interviews, husbands also expressed frustration because they were unable to protect their wives from rapists or secure justice on their behalf. One father spoke of his constant guilt, and worry that no one will marry his daughter after she was raped by a Maoist. A woman said she is always angry with her husband because he failed to prevent the rape; he says he would have been killed if he had intervened.
The Nepal government should ensure confidential counselling through government health services. It should reach out to women systematically to help them overcome the stigma of rape, and prevent domestic violence within their communities or families because of it. Survivors of domestic violence, including those who experience it as a consequence of conflict-era rape, should be able to report the abuse and secure access to services tailored to their needs. Almost all the women we interviewed said they wanted compensation and other reparation for the violence and trauma they survived.
The government should ensure that conflict-era victims of sexual violence and torture are eligible for reparations. It should also provide rehabilitative services to promote the physical, cognitive, and psychological recovery of sexual-violence survivors, and their social reintegration.
Lastly, it should amend the criminal law to include all forms of sexual offence, with appropriate punishments based on harm, incorporating command responsibility for war crimes, torture and other international crimes committed by police and other security forces. This should include a uniform protocol for treatment and medical examination of rape survivors, which respects their privacy and dignity, is conducted only when necessary and minimises retraumatisation.
Conflict-era survivors of sexual violence have already suffered for too long. It is time to break the silence and provide them with the help they need to recover and secure justice.