Uma Singh, a young woman journalist and activist, was murdered for raising the issue of violence against women in Nepal. Uma, who worked for Radio Today FM and the Women's Human Rights Defender Network, was hacked to death by a gang of men on 11 January 2009.
On 10 April 2008, a new Constituent Assembly in Nepal was elected. The elections brought hope for placing human rights at the heart of the Constituent Assembly work and the new Maoist government made specific commitments to end impunity and improve the human rights situation in Nepal, including the rights of women and women human rights defenders.
In July, the government established a task force to make recommendations regarding violence against women and criminalization of domestic violence, following an extended protest by women human rights defenders, initiated after the alleged murder of a women human rights defender and the subsequent failure of police to properly investigate. The task force has yet to submit its report, which was due within two months.
A year on, very little has changed in reality, as women activists continue to face barriers to access justice and seek redress for domestic and sexual violence and gender discrimination. Two women's rights activists in Nepal have been murdered since the new government came to power, with no significant attempts made to investigate or prosecute the crimes.
An Amnesty International mission visited Nepal in November 2008 and spoke to a wide range of women human rights defenders; Hindus, Muslims, Dalits, Janajatis and other marginalized groups, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists. Women activists shared stories of their challenges, struggles and hopes, while taking up the issue of women's human rights.
Amnesty International has found that, in spite of the election promises made by the government, women human rights activists continue to be at high risk of attack because they dare to challenge Nepal's patriarchal system. Many have become social outcasts for raising the issues of domestic and sexual violence and can face intimidation, beatings and even death. The Nepalese police often refuse to file a complaint or to fully investigate attacks and offer no protection, leaving women to face further persecution in their families and communities.
"When the Maoist Government came to power it made commitments to protect women's rights but these now seem like false promises," said Madhu Malhotra, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Deputy Director. "Now that they are in government, all the revolutionary rhetoric has not resulted in real improvements in women's lives.
"Women activists play a crucial role in Nepal, where many women are unaware of their rights and are afraid of confronting social and government authority," said Madhu Malhotra. "Women activists are singled out for violent attacks as it further promotes a culture of silence and discourages women experiencing violence to speak out."
Each woman activist's experience was unique and differed depending on the areas in which they work. Those engaged in policy advocacy in the capital city, Kathmandu, have to tackle attitudes in the patriarchal society that regard women as second-class citizens. One women activist said that, "even human rights activists do not seem to take women's rights seriously."
Rita Mahato is a 30-year-old health counsellor with the Women's Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC) in the Siraha district, an organization helping survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Rita was threatened with rape and murder in June 2007 when men who objected to WOREC's work raided her office. The police have failed to initiate any investigation into the attack.
In Nepal, women activists often work in remote locations with minimal communication facilities and support mechanisms. They encounter discriminatory cultural practices such as early child marriage and boxsi (witchcraft). One activist told Amnesty International, "Whenever a woman takes a step forward she is accused of boxsi".
Women activists in Eastern Terai, southern Nepal, are equally vulnerable to gender based violence. Reported violations tackled by women activists include rape by landlords and members of armed groups, violence in the family including by intimate partners and dowry deaths.
Dev Kumari's story
Dev Kumari Mahara is a colleague of Rita Mahato. In April 2007, she was called to a crime scene near her home. A neighbour was accused of the rape of the wife of a mute husband. The victim had been beaten, her blouse torn and her face swollen. The victim recognized her attacker.
Due to her past experience of hostility from the police, Dev Kumari first contacted the women's human rights defender network. The police didn't turn up to the crime scene despite Dev Kumari's phone report, so she had to take the victim to hospital.
There are no free medical services for rape victims in Siraha. The doctor who examined the victim did not file a rape report that could be used as evidence. According to Dev Kumari, the alleged rapist is from a rich family and was able to bribe the police and the doctor.
After Dev Kumari filed a formal complaint about the rape case, the accused contacted a group of supporters who started to harass her. When the women's human rights defender network tried to file a complaint about the rape and subsequent harassment, a gang of men gathered outside the police station.
"They threatened to kill me, to chop off my legs, to rape me and burn me alive," said Dev Kumari. Despite witnessing the threats, the police failed to challenge and investigate the incident.
Dev Kumari said that the common way to settle rape charges in Siraha is for the rapist to pay a settlement for the victim's forgiveness.
Amnesty International's research showed that instead of investigating incidents, women are pushed by police, family and community to accept traditional informal community justice where payment of bribes, discrimination and the lack of importance of the crime committed often prevent real justice. Women activists told Amnesty International that they are often humiliated when they attempt to report incidents to the police.
Victims often turn to the quick fix of community justice solutions. Traditional dispute resolution systems are common across Nepal given the barriers to accessing formal justice mechanisms.
The state's duty to protect women from violence is explicitly stated in the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which Nepal has ratified. States should pursue by "all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating violence against women" (Article 4). Under international human rights law, the state has an obligation not only to ensure that its agents and officials do not commit violence against women, but also to protect women from violence committed by private individuals and bodies including members of their own families and communities.
Activists like Dev Kumari live in hope of justice. She says, "I will keep on fighting but I want the members of Constitution Assembly to take up the rights of women. We are waiting for justice."