Rape of women and children in Nepal spiralling upwards

Kathmandu Letter: Protests and shock at growing sexual violence and rights abuses

Low between the hills that surround the Kathmandu valley, the lush green landscape around Nepal's capital belies a troubling debate taking place in the country about the safety of women and children.

Although India has hit international headlines in recent years following a growing number of violent sexual attacks, in Nepal, its smaller neighbour to the north, a similar trend is emerging.

A recently released police report found that 1,480 incidents of rape were reported in Nepal last year, almost double the number for 2016, with many more thought to have gone unreported.

The rape and murder of 13-year-old Nirmala Panta four weeks ago has enraged Nepalese rights groups and shocked the country. The teenager had reportedly gone to a friend's home in Kanchanpur, western Nepal, to do her homework but was later found dead in a sugar cane field halfway between there and her home, 1km away.

A 41-year-old convicted killer has been charged with the crime, and two women whose home the teenager visited that evening have been arrested. But when police last week presented the main suspect, believed to be a “mentally unstable” man, locals were enraged, claiming he was not the attacker and that police had concocted a cover-up.

The perceived conspiracy then triggered violent protests in Kanchanpur that last Friday saw a 17-year-old boy shot dead by police and 24 people injured. The army has since enacted night-time curfews in several local districts as tensions remain high.

Protests have spread to Kathmandu, where several hundred people gathered in the monsoon rain on August 25th. Some re-enacted scenes of attacks against women to highlight the shocking violence involved.

Emerging epidemic

“Two levels of interventions must be carried out in dealing with cases of rape and sexual violence,” politician and former BBC journalist Rabindra Mishra told local media. “[The] first level of intervention must be carried out from government and policymaking level, and second from the level of citizens.”

Reports of violent sexual attacks against women and children have become increasingly common in Nepal. The horrific rape and subsequent death of a six-year-old girl in 2015 was one of the first incidents to highlight what rights groups have called an emerging epidemic – one for which justice is rarely seen to be served.

Reports of violent attacks on women around the country now feature in local newspapers such as the Kathmandu Post and Himalayan Times almost every day.

Despite a billion-euro tourism industry centred on trekking and mountaineering, Nepal remains one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Asia. The April 2015 earthquake that killed almost 9,000 people left millions homeless and destroyed half the country’s gross domestic product.

At the same time, recent years have seen significant advances in women’s rights. One-third of seats in the higher and lower houses of government, as well as membership of political parties, is reserved for women, and about 14,000 women were elected to Nepal’s local municipalities last year.

Bidhya Devi Bhandari was returned for a second term as Nepal's president, a largely ceremonial post, last March. She made a Forbes magazine list of the most powerful women in the world in 2016. Last year, the banishing of menstruating women to outdoor huts, a practice called chhaupadi, was banned. A rape conviction now carries a 20-year jail term.

Patriarchal and feudal

And yet, such advances in what for centuries has been a deeply patriarchal and feudal society continue to face stiff cultural opposition. Discrimination against women is rife, with Nepal ranked behind Swaziland and Tajikistan in the World Economic Summit's Global Gender Gap report for 2017.

Almost 45 per cent of Nepalese women are thought to be illiterate (far more than Nepalese men) while, according to the Himalayan Times, the maternal mortality rate is 258 per 100,000 live births. By comparison, India's is 174 while in Europe it stands at 16 per 100,000 live births.

Despite the banning of chhaupadi, in January a 21-year-old woman from a rural district of Nepal died of suspected smoke inhalation after being forced to sleep in a hut.

Last week, the municipal authorities in Kanchanpur paid out the equivalent of €2,270 to Nirmala Panta’s grieving family. (Relatives of the boy shot dead by police during the protest received a similar amount in compensation.)

Just four days after her murder on July 27th, Panta was cremated on the shores of the remote Mahakali river by a small group of relatives. A police escort stood by watching.

The fear and expectation in Nepal as it struggles on numerous fronts is that the teenager’s tragic murder won’t be the last to make headlines.

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