(Kathmandu) – Both government forces and Maoist combatants raped and sexually harassed women and girls during Nepal’s decade-long armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said in a report published today.
The 78-page report, “Silenced and Forgotten: Survivors of Nepal’s Conflict-Era Sexual Violence,” documents sexual violence by both government forces and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) combatants during the conflict, which ended with a peace agreement in 2006. Many of these crimes remain unreported, with survivors isolated and unable to find ways to access justice and redress. The Nepali government should take immediate measures to encourage women to report these crimes and seek justice, and develop a reparation program to address critical needs of survivors of sexual violence and torture, including long term health care and livelihood support.
“For more than 10 years already, these women have suffered in silence and fear while the perpetrators have walked free,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Justice and reparations for women who suffered sexual assault is long overdue unfinished business from the civil war.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 50 women with the assistance of Advocacy Forum, a Nepali nongovernmental organization, to document experiences of sexual assault during the conflict between 1996 and 2006.
The women 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 Nepalis who provided such assistance. Some of the women described how members of the security forces raped female combatants after arrest and targeted female relatives or supporters of Maoist suspects. Other women said Maoist combatants raped women who refused to support them or women they forcibly recruited to help their insurgency. Some of the women were still children, under age 18, when they were sexually assaulted.
The report says that a combination of immense social stigma attached to sexual assault and fear of retaliation prevented many women from reporting these crimes during the conflict, and that it still inhibits many others from speaking of the assaults. There is a glaring need for psycho-social and medical support for these women.
“It’s hard to describe how helpless I felt,” said one of the women. “No amount of crying or screaming or begging helped. Everything they did was against my will.”
The victims interviewed live in isolated villages where there is often no government presence, let alone adequate access to health care and other services. Though the war is over, many victims feel deep insecurity, and their fear further impedes their ability to report and receive redress for what happened to them. Many of the women described domestic violence as a result of the conflict-era rapes.
Although the government and political parties have made public commitments to provide justice and accountability for the many victims of the conflict, no provisions have been made for victims of sexual violence. The government has not included them in an interim compensation program to provide for family members of those killed or disappeared during the war.
The government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act specifically says that those responsible for sexual violence are not eligible for amnesty. But the authorities are yet to ensure meaningful investigations and prosecutions of perpetrators or an effective reparations program for the victims.
“If the government is serious about addressing conflict-era sexual violence and its fallout, it needs to include survivors of sexual violence as part of its compensation package,” Ganguly said. “The complete silence on providing interim relief, combined with the rampant culture of impunity, drives these victims further into invisibility.”
In addition, Nepal’s 35-day statute of limitations on reporting sexual violence is an unacceptable and illogical additional hurdle to reporting rape. Several victims said they were told that they could not lodge complaints with the police as they were barred by the statute of limitations. The Nepali government should ensure that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or any other independent commission has a mandate to investigate allegations of conflict-related rape and other forms of sexual violence.
The government should develop, in consultation with local women’s rights groups and women from conflict-affected communities, a reparations program that meets international standards. The government should also make legislative, policy, and programmatic changes as part of the larger framework to remove barriers and address gaps that prevented conflict-era rape survivors from seeking justice.
The government should also guarantee women a role in the peace process, including in any truth commissions, and ensure that the commissions comply with international standards.
“Sexual violence is a particularly difficult crime for victims to report, due to the stigma associated with it,” Ganguly said. “The government of Nepal needs to remove the hurdles it places along the way for victims, and make the system for reporting sexual assault both feasible and accessible.”
Selected statements from survivors of sexual assault (pseudonyms used to protect victims against possible retaliation):
– Nandita, who was raped in 2001 because her husband was a Maoist combatant.
“I don’t know if any of these men were ever punished. There was no commander as such of the group of Maoists who held me captive…. It’s hard to describe how helpless I felt. No amount of crying or screaming or begging helped. Everything they did was against my will.”
– Meena was abducted and raped by Maoists in 2004 for refusing to join their programs.
“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. For two months, I looked after her. 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.”
– Husband of Bipasha, who was gang-raped by security forces in 2002.
“Sometimes when he (her husband) gets very angry he brings it up and says I am a loose woman and I should get out of the house. His behavior towards me changed after this happened. We were happy before this. But after this everything changed. I feel worthless.”
– Santoshi, who was raped by Maoists in 2006.