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After the Inspector General’s Office completed its investigation in November 2002, UNHCR initiated a comprehensive program to prevent and respond to the overall problem of gender-based violence in Nepal’s refugee camps. These included streamlining reporting and referral procedures; increasing security and a regular UNHCR presence in the camps; establishing mass information campaigns to raise community awareness about gender discrimination and gender-based violence; improving medical protocols and other victims’ services; signing a subagreement with the Nepal Bar Association to provide legal counseling and representation to gender-based violence survivors and actively pursuing prosecutions; and ensuring the retention of women and children’s organizations in the camps. To address gender-based violence by humanitarian workers, UNHCR amended their subagreements with implementing partners to include a code of conduct for all employees (see Appendix A).

In late 2002, UNHCR also removed three international staff members from their posts in Nepal on grounds of gross negligence. UNHCR has not provided any public information on follow-up procedures or disciplinary measures taken regarding these three staff. Sharing information in a transparent manner on internal protocols for disciplinary action and the outcome of such proceedings is essential for setting a rigorous standard of accountability for UNHCR’s employees, its partners, and the staff of other United Nations agencies.

As of July 25, 2003, UNHCR had documented eighty-four cases of gender-based violence.103 Thirty-eight victims were children, and one victim was male. These include thirty-six cases of rape, thirteen cases of domestic violence, thirteen sexual and physical assault cases, and seven cases of child marriage.104 UNHCR also reported that thirty-five additional refugee women and girls are missing from the camps.105 Many of these girls and women may be trafficking victims.

Human Rights Watch interviews with refugees suggest the actual numbers of gender-based violence are higher. Fears of retaliation and social stigma still prevent survivors from coming forward,106 and Human Rights Watch talked to domestic violence victims in particular who felt that existing mechanisms could not address their problems. In other situations, women and children may have reported their cases, but they are still being handled at the camp management level rather than being forwarded to UNHCR.107

UNHCR has demonstrated commitment to establishing a coordinated response to gender-based violence and has made progress implementing the recommendations of the Inspector General’s Office; however, distressing gaps remain. Victims continue to live in the same vicinity as their assailants. Many domestic violence victims face the same problems they did before the new policies were put in place. And as detailed above, the camp registration and ration-distribution system prevents women separated from their husbands from accessing their full share of aid.

This chapter describes both the strengths and gaps in the response to gender-based violence in the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal. The following sections address the effect of changes in UNHCR staffing and the guidelines for humanitarian aid staff, and the challenges confronting refugee women serving in the camp management committees or as women’s focal points. This chapter also examines security measures, reporting and referral systems, and the response to domestic violence. Lastly, it highlights problems with ensuring confidentiality for victims and obstacles to seeking redress through the Nepalese criminal justice system.


UNHCR and the government of Nepal improved security measures in all seven refugee camps in the first part of 2003. However, in interviews with Human Rights Watch, refugees still cited security as a serious problem. Previously, Nepalese police were reluctant to work in the refugee camps because they did not have the resources or systems to handle security problems.108 The Nepalese government and UNHCR have installed phone lines in each police station, allowing for immediate calls for an ambulance, to UNHCR, and for outside police reinforcements. Refugees do not have access to phone lines elsewhere in the camp, but they can use radio equipment to contact a radio operator room staffed twenty-four hours a day at the UNHCR office in Damak.109 Police officers are now stationed inside the camps around-the-clock compared to a limited daytime presence previously, and as of July 2003, there is one female police officer stationed in each camp.110 UNHCR has increased its staff to have one field assistant in each camp daily, an improvement over the earlier situation of employing only two field assistants to cover all seven camps.

The design of the camps facilitates safety in some respects and hampers it in others. Every two huts share a latrine, saving refugees from risky trips to distant or poorly-lit parts of the camp at night. The Lutheran World Federation has helped create a water and sanitation system that ensures consistent and year-round access to water inside the camps. Refugees also receive kerosene and stoves as part of their assistance packages. However, the location of the camps presents difficulties. Timai and Goldhap camps are located close to the Nepal-India border and, along with other camps, have experienced cases of trafficking in refugee women and girls. The proximity of several camps to the town of Damak or to major thoroughfares has allowed refugees to participate in life outside of the camps, but has also meant that members of the local Nepalese community sometimes enter the camps and harass the refugees.

Women, men, and children all report problems with local Nepalese coming into the camps, often inebriated, and harassing them.111 A forty-five-year-old male subsector head said, “[d]runk local people come in the camp. They tease women, they beat people. There have been some serious cases.”112 Kalpana K., a seventeen-year-old girl, said, “I don’t like it when they tease me. It happens more right outside of the camp. There are gangs of people outside of the camp. They have the wrong intention. They talk in such a manner, pretending they’re going to marry you immediately. Some women—fall prey to these men.”113

Women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they fear sexual violence. Sapana S., who is twenty-three, reported that, “being a refugee, especially women, we feel insecure in the camp. [Our concern is] mainly the sex cases, if we have to work at night, we should take guard, otherwise the situation could get very difficult.”114 A girl in tenth grade said:

The locals threaten us, they come inside the camp and drink. They come near my home, everyday they come, I can’t count how many, ages sixteen to twenty-five. Boys from the camp learn from them and imitate them. They speak filthy words. They can do illegal acts to us. Even to small girls. In my sector there was a case involving a three or four-year-old girl baby. This organization [UNHCR] should be strict. The government of Nepal should also make strict rules.115

Guidelines for Humanitarian Aid Staff

Human Rights Watch found that UNHCR and its implementing partners had made significant progress in encouraging compliance with a code of conduct for employees. The government of Nepal is amending the camp rules with input from UNHCR and implementing partners. However, these revisions remained incomplete as of July 2003.UNHCR has adopted the core principles outlined in the code of conduct developed by the IASC Task Force and has amended its subagreements with implementing partners accordingly (see Appendix A).UNHCR has also drafted a Manual on Inter-Agency Practices and Procedures outlining detailed procedures for prevention and response to gender-based violence in the camps. Government representatives, UNHCR, implementing partners, and refugee representatives will all sign the final product.116

Implementing agencies instituted reforms in their internal guidelines and their staffing practices. They ensured that all refugee workers who were implicated in cases of sexual exploitation and abuse were dismissed if they had not already resigned, and agreed to share information so they do not hire individuals with records of abuse from other agencies.117 Caritas-Nepal also issued updated guidelines for the camp schools. These include a code of conduct based on the IASC core principles that all staff must sign, and the promotion of protection against gender-based violence through education.118 Although Caritas has repealed discriminatory rules that expelled pregnant girls from camp schools, the revised guidelines still provide that any student involved in a “love affair” with a teacher or another student may be expelled.119

In January 2003, the RCU, UNHCR, and all implementing partners formed an Inter-Agency Protection Working Group (PWG) to discuss and coordinate response to all protection issues in the camps, with a special emphasis on gender-based violence. Additional camp-level PWGs exist in six camps and include camp-level representatives of the RCU, police, UNHCR, implementing partners, camp management committee, and other refugee organizations.

Despite the changed policies, there is substantial resistance to the reforms among implementing partners. A reliable source familiar with the NGO response told Human Rights Watch:

The initial response from the NGOs has not been satisfactory. At the Kathmandu level there is understanding, but not at the Damak and Birtamode level. The management is not sensitive to the issue.— They have a tendency to downplay the violence as social problems—girl students and elopements—. The NGOs were supposed to conduct investigations of misconduct by their staff. But it was done inappropriately. Victims were interviewed by panels that were intimidating, it was not appropriate for kids.— There has been a specific set of recommendations to recruit female teachers and not have young males teaching older female students—. These recommendations have not been implemented.120

The senior management of these organizations in Damak and Birtamode expressed resentment and at times anger about the resources and attention they felt UNHCR compelled them to dedicate to gender-based violence. They noted that renewal of their contracts depended on the introduction of these changes. Many of these senior managers felt that “SGBV” had become overblown, that UNHCR was imposing outside values and strategies on the culture of the refugees, and that sexual relationships between beneficiaries and refugee staff working with their agencies were acceptable.

The attitudes and statements of these senior managers undermine efforts to develop organization-wide commitments to fighting gender-based violence. Several voiced the opinion, “It’s not our problem.” Although all were complying with new requirements, they did not exhibit sensitivity to why they should be addressing gender-based violence and minimized the problems in the camps. Human Rights Watch interviewed one senior manager of an implementing agency who said, “Boys will be boys” and who had been reluctant to dismiss workers involved with sexual exploitation cases.121 Another manager said, “I think UNHCR created the SGBV problem. For example, I saw two cases. One was a nine-year-old girl who had been raped six months before, there was no physical evidence. One was a five-year-old girl—there was no physical evidence. In both cases, it could be attempted rape, but not rape.”122 Such attitudes show that senior management of the implementing agencies still has little grasp of the causes and forms of gender-based violence. Without understanding and commitment, these managers cannot play an effective role in preventing and responding to abuse.

Human Rights Watch interviewed many senior managers of implementing agencies who expressed concerns about applying the code of conduct to “incentive workers,” refugees who receive a small stipend for their work with an agency. As one manager said, “I am an aid worker. The refugees receiving incentives to work with us are not aid workers.”123 This comment reflects a contentious debate globally regarding appropriate methods for preventing and responding to gender-based violence in refugee camps. Some NGOs and refugees have questioned whether locally recruited, and sometimes unpaid, refugees constitute humanitarian aid workers, whether NGOs hold protection responsibilities, and whether outside agencies should create policies contravening local “cultural” practices like child marriage.124 For example, another senior manager said, “I feel it is too restrictive to forbid relations between refugee incentive workers, teachers, and students. They are from the same community. Who are we to say they should at least be eighteen? I feel strongly about this.”125

The 2003 Guidelines take a clear and firm position on these issues. A key premise of the Guidelines is that for gender-based violence to be addressed effectively and sustainably, all involved parties must understand the dynamics of power and their own responsibilities. As the 2003 Guidelines note, gender-based violence is rooted in unequal power relations: “Exploitation and abuse occurs when this disparity of power is misused to the detriment of those persons who cannot negotiate or make decisions on an equal basis.”126 Humanitarian aid workers, including refugee staff, command resources and hold positions of authority in refugee settings. Teachers and food distribution coordinators belong in this category, even if they are volunteers. According to the IASC Task Force:

Humanitarian workers are obliged to create and maintain an environment which prevents sexual exploitation and abuse and promotes the implementation of their code of conduct. Managers at all levels have particular responsibilities to support and develop systems which maintain this environment.127

Based on Human Rights Watch research in eastern Nepal, an important area for intervention is a targeted gender-sensitization program for senior management, as well as a forum where they can openly discuss their attitudes and concerns. One senior manager said, “Refugees want to live by their own norms. They may not want to report these cases. Should we go dig it out? This is a conservative society. If a girl is raped, she wants to hide it. If we give light to these issues, are we protecting her?”128 Ongoing training programs or workshops could provide managers the opportunity to voice such opinions and to learn why UNHCR is promoting certain approaches.129 Senior managers must understand that silence deprives victims of essential services and support and creates an environment of impunity for perpetrators.

Women’s Leadership

An essential aspect of promoting women’s equal access to material resources and decisions affecting themselves and their community is to increase women’s participation in leadership. The camp management committees introduced a required 50 percent participation rate from women in each camp in 2003. One of the top two positions in each camp must also be filled by a woman. The increasing participation of women in distribution committees, the counseling board, and senior leadership could have important long-term benefits for the status of women in the camps. However, their placement in these positions is not enough. Many women in leadership positions emphasized the need for greater training so that they could perform their jobs more effectively.

Although women now comprise one half of the camp management committees, many assumed their positions with less experience than their male counterparts. Women refugees require adequate training and support to become effective and not just symbolic members of camp management. Because men had traditionally held many of these positions, women leaders also confront discrimination from other refugees. Human Rights Watch interviewed many newly elected women who called for more sustained training. Beena M.’s comments depict the disempowering effect that assuming responsibilities without adequate preparation and support can have:

I have been a sector head for three months; I have no previous experience. Actually I didn’t feel like working for the CMC, I didn’t feel capable, but all my friends encouraged me. The orientation was for one day. They described our responsibilities, but no learning was there. I am discouraged. I have told the subsector heads not to bring cases to me. They should solve cases at their level because they’re very experienced. There should be some training—maybe that is why I don’t know my responsibilities. There should be some kind of training on how to handle cases. I don’t know anything. Suppose a birth case comes and they need to apply for rations. Once the form came and I didn’t even know where to sign the form. The form was rejected.130

Several female camp management committee members and women’s focal points expressed to Human Rights Watch their deep frustration that social prejudices undermined their leadership even when they had significant experience and the required skill sets for their positions. One women’s focal point said, “Women speak, but people don’t listen. The community doesn’t accept the decisions of women, they accept the decisions of men.”131 A member of the camp management committee said, “Right from the beginning I was on the counseling board. Though I have been working [in the CMC] from the beginning, though I’ve been in a leadership post, people still don’t listen. As a woman, I understand women’s problems. But whatever male members say, we have to go along with that.”132

The Bhutanese Refugee Women’s Forum and the Children’s Forum are two under-utilized allies in the effort to develop women’s leadership and to address gender-based violence. Both raised the issue of violence against women and children prior to public coverage of the issue in November 2002 and were ignored or snubbed by the camp management committees, RCUs, and aid agencies. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, leaders of the Bhutanese Refugee Women’s Forum expressed a desire to register as an independent NGO with the government of Nepal, but said that their request for autonomy repeatedly had been denied.133 Given their potential to help train and educate women and children and to promote leadership skills, these two organizations should be strengthened.

UNHCR Staffing

UNHCR has taken several steps since the end of 2002 to address staffing problems related to gender-based violence in the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal. These include the investigation by the Inspector General’s Office, work with implementing partners to change their guidelines and staffing policies, and coordination with lawyers to prosecute cases within the Nepalese criminal justice system. The UNHCR office in Damak now employs a full-time SGBV specialist and four new protection staff with legal backgrounds.134 They have also increased staffing levels in the camps, organized various community awareness campaigns and trainings, and clarified reporting procedures.

UNHCR’s efforts represent encouraging progress, but also demonstrate how future operations in sensitive situations should organize their changes in staffing differently. The influx of resources into Nepal for increased staffing and SGBV programming are an important indicator of UNHCR’s commitment to addressing these issues meaningfully. However, UNHCR staff experienced high levels of turnover immediately after the “sexual exploitation” scandal broke. In order to address the situation, UNHCR rotated several international staff into Nepal for one to three months. This strategy resulted in a number of new and transient staff working in a sensitive situation. Refugee women’s advocates said that as soon as they learned to trust and develop good working relationships with UNHCR officers, the officers would leave.

Refugee women’s advocates reported that they had to produce the survivors of gender-based violence repeatedly to tell their stories to each new UNHCR team. Ambika T., a women’s focal point in one camp, said with frustration:

There is no permanent person among UNHCR officials. They visit our camp twice a week. We have to bring the cases to them and the victims have had to describe their cases repeatedly. It is mental torture for them, and I get complaints from the victim. Then people don’t like to come to me with their problems. They complain about the women’s focal point. The people think if a case is taken to UNHCR it will be kept pending, but if handled here with the CMC, it would be settled.135

Reporting and Referral Systems

Reporting and referral systems have improved since the initial investigation by the Inspector General’s Office. UNHCR has tried to increase community awareness about gender-based violence and reporting mechanisms through workshops, has established guidelines so that cases of gender-based violence are forwarded to UNHCR, and has strengthened the position of the refugee women’s focal point as a direct channel through which refugee women can make complaints. In recent cases involving child victims of rape and attempted rape, camp officials appropriately referred the children’s cases through the system and the children were able to receive immediate medical attention, support services, and legal aid.

Despite these improvements, serious problems continue to plague the response to gender-based violence in the camps, at the expense of refugee women and children’s safety. Refugees, camp management committee members, women’s focal points, and RCU administrators presented conflicting information as to how different types of gender-based violence cases should be treated. Human Rights Watch interviewed camp management committee members and RCU administrators to find out which cases they forwarded to UNHCR and which cases they resolved within camp management. They indicated that only the most egregious cases of gender-based violence, usually rape or trafficking, would be forwarded to the police and UNHCR. They often treated domestic violence as “petty” cases, despite domestic violence involving patterns of abuse and control that can have serious psychological and economic consequences for victims, and that can lead to injury or death.

One RCU administrator explained, “We forward cases of murder, theft, and rape. The cases settled in the RCU are small cases. We do counseling, help to make agreements. We deal with smaller theft, alcoholism, if one beats another one, and if a person tries to forcibly rape [but does not succeed], then we treat it here.”136 Pandu R, who had served on the CMC since 1992 and is currently the chief of the counseling board in one of the camps, said:

For petty cases, we do verbal counseling, if the case is difficult we forward to the RCU or police. For example there was a case where some boys tried to rape a fifteen-year-old girl. They fled. She felt really down and ashamed. She took poison and was taken to the hospital. This was about three months ago. The case is pending, the culprits have ran away, and UNHCR is informed. This is the kind of case that is referred [out]—we haven’t referred too many cases. We see [domestic violence] cases sometimes. We make an agreement.137 Some cases come again. Some get resolved, sometimes we have to again give a warning and then a final warning. If cases come many times, we then forward to the police.138

Cases of domestic abuse of children also do not receive adequate attention and response. Camp management committee members often handle these cases and do not regularly forward them to UNHCR and the RCUs. A coordinator for the Children’s Forum complained about the reporting and referral system. She told Human Rights Watch:

We inform the camp management committee about child abuse cases. We have to remind them two or three times for each case. They take it for granted and do not attend to them. We see twelve or thirteen cases in each camp per month—. [The CMC] gives no answer. We follow up and ask what happened, only then do we get some sort of response. Beatings happen when people are drunk. Even after counseling it still keeps on repeating. There should be punishments for the parents. If one parent is punished, the rest will feel fear—. They should take the responsibility from the subsector head and give it to the RCU, because people fear them more.139

Response to Domestic Violence

The response to domestic violence continues to be weak and leaves women at risk for abuse. Camp management and the RCU often minimized domestic violence as “petty cases.” The methods they employed to resolve domestic violence cases focused on reconciliation and did not adequately address women’s own wishes, safety, and access to services. These responses also often failed to reflect the best interests of children.

Human Rights Watch interviewed several victims of domestic violence who confronted the same obstacles as before the new response to sexual and gender-based violence was implemented: difficulty pushing cases through a camp management bureaucracy, public hearings in front of the counseling board that were often humiliating, and a pervasive acceptance of violence that normalized it as a part of the culture. The camp management forwarded domestic violence cases involving beatings that required hospitalization to UNHCR, but left “less serious” cases, including psychological abuse or a pattern of fights involving physical violence, to subsector heads, sector heads, the counseling board, the camp secretary, the RCU, and women’s focal points.140

The case of Nar Maya P., a thirty-seven-year-old woman with four children, ages nine to sixteen, exemplifies these problems:

My husband drinks a lot. He promises he won’t drink, but it only lasts two days. He starts drinking, quarreling, fighting with me, the whole night will be spent quarreling. When he’s drunk, he accuses me of having relations with another man. He says he won’t take care of a woman like me. I have the support of my children, and the neighbors also support me. That becomes another reason for me to get beaten. He accuses me of bribing the neighbors.

I’ve only been reporting these problems for the last five months even though it has been a problem for six years. I always thought things would change, but now I’ve started reporting it. He drinks and comes, he accuses me, “you are a prostitute, you are mad.” I receive all sorts of insults. He’s beaten me with his hand so far, but I have to be alert. He picks up anything, like sticks and the kikuri [a traditional knife]. He drinks every day and he fights every alternate day. He threatens he will leave.

I had given application to the RCU, because I can’t tolerate it anymore. I asked for separation, to get my own rations, I’ve been tortured too much. In that case, the RCU said, “Okay, fine, let’s see if he will improve. Let him come here and sign. Let’s experiment.”141 He only went for three-four days. Three times they have given him the chance to improve—the first time they gave him one month, the second time fifteen days, the third time, seven days. Afterwards, they passed the case on to the camp secretary.

The subsector head encourages me to wait and see. He says I should cook food and give it to my husband. But he will never change, he’s been given enough time. I have clearly mentioned in the RCU application—I would like to stay separately so the children can study. My children never get to study at home, I advise them to study at the neighbors’ houses. Then my husband accuses me of having other husbands.

The women’s focal point has been supporting me, she is always there. The camp secretary has advised me to go to the police, but my husband would get a beating. I didn’t support it, I said if the camp secretary wanted to go fine, but that I wouldn’t go. The focal point encouraged me yesterday to follow up with the RCU. But when I went to the RCU in the past, every time he [my husband] was given another chance. I couldn’t control my tears.142

Members of camp management, the women’s focal points, and the RCUs approached most domestic violence cases guided by a philosophy of family reconciliation. Most of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch seemed unfamiliar with the dynamics of domestic violence that result in women repeatedly returning to abusive partners or feeling reluctant to file lawsuits or “police cases” against them. Without appropriate training, camp management, police, and RCU administrators learning of domestic violence cases often classified them as “quarrels between husband and wife,” without recognizing long-term patterns of abuse and control and the corresponding needs for counseling, safety, and independence.

Refugee women were often concerned about their own and their husband’s reputations, or felt that they needed to stay with an abusive husband for the sake of their children. One women’s focal point observed, “Most women think of their family, of defamation, and they suppress [themselves.] They only seek help when it is intolerable.”143 Many clung to hopes of living happily with their husband. To address domestic violence adequately, individuals handling such cases should be trained to address these issues in ways that do not compromise the safety and long-term well-being of women and children.

Kina R. is a refugee woman victimized by domestic violence. She told Human Rights Watch, “My husband drinks and he sells the rations and he drinks. Sometimes he sells his share [of the rations], sometimes the whole family’s. We fight, sometimes big and sometimes small. There are so many fights. I have to be very understanding, for the sake of the children.”144 Kina R. raised her problems with her subsector head and the counseling board, who will observe her husband for one year. Her situation has not improved. She said:

When I talk to the subsector head, he says “We are already trying, but he [the husband] doesn’t listen. Both of you should be living together happily.” I haven’t talked to the women’s focal point. I feel sometimes I shouldn’t have brought the case, I think of the children. I still hope he will change.145

Some women are afraid to bring domestic violence cases forward because they fear retaliation from their husbands and they cannot expect adequate protection. A BRWF camp secretary told Human Rights Watch, “Women don’t want to speak out. Ultimately she has to go back to him, so she doesn’t want to jeopardize her safety.”146 Durga S. told Human Rights Watch:

My husband is suspicious whenever I talk to anybody else. Since he brought a second wife, I am beaten frequently. I was beaten badly and everyone told me I needed help. I thought, “What will I say, they’ll ask questions.” On my thighs, there were blue marks. He had beaten me with a belt and with his hands. He has already hit me, why should I show everyone—people will talk badly about us. Another time I did go and I told lies to the hospital authorities, I said I had fallen down. I used to tell the subsector head and he would say, “live together properly.” I don’t want a case. Even when you asked to speak with me, I was wondering what I would say—. My husband threatens to kill me and throw me away. He beats me if he thinks I’m reporting it to someone.147

Interviews with the women’s focal points, Bhutanese Refugee Women’s Forum, and social subcommittee and counseling board members all suggest that domestic violence is commonplace in the camps. Alarmingly, at least three attempted suicides in the refugee camps are linked to young women with histories of domestic violence.148 After the scrutiny and overhaul of camp reporting and referral mechanisms for sexual and gender-based violence, the failure to develop services to meet the needs of domestic violence victims reflects an unacceptable minimization of intimate partner violence. One women’s focal point, who ought to understand the dangers posed by a blanket policy promoting family reconciliation, said, “Mostly I see cases between husband and wife. They come repeatedly. The first time I listen to their problems and give the wife counseling. The second or third time in the follow-up, we tell them to be good and stay together. Sometimes at home they still have problems.”149

Response to Other Forms of Gender-Based Violence and Discrimination

In addition to domestic violence, Human Rights Watch found a wide range of gender-related problems in the Bhutanese refugee camps. These problems often stemmed from practices that discriminate against women. They included polygyny, child marriage, forced marriage, and trafficking of women and girls. The response of UNHCR and its implementing partners to these problems was also disappointing. The practice of polygyny combined with discriminatory registration policies compromised women’s independent access to rations and made them vulnerable to abuse. Even when a man takes a second wife and is living completely separately, first wives are often bound to their husbands for registration and repatriation. Women rarely had a say if their husbands brought in a second wife. Radhika S. related:

I got married when I was thirteen. I had one child in Bhutan and then no more. My husband wanted more children so he talked about remarrying. He liked my own sister. Because I had a problem having more children, I had to agree. My husband threatened that if I didn’t give permission, he would leave me. I said, “at least don’t bring my own sister,” but he didn’t listen. Then my husband brought a third wife. The quarrels got bigger, and sometimes he said that he would kill us. I really feared that he would do it.150

Human Rights Watch interviewed many women, both young and old, who got married as teenagers. The younger women described their early marriages in the context of “elopement,” or running away with a boy when their families did not approve of the match. Parents often disapproved if the children were young or if it was an inter-caste pairing. In many cases, interviewees said they eloped voluntarily. In other cases, especially when a girl had become pregnant, it was unclear whether she was pregnant as a result of sexual assault or an affair, and whether she truly consented to the marriage. The camp management committee, the girl’s family, and the women’s focal point often responded by trying to “restore the girl’s honor” by ensuring that she got married. Sanchu B., a women’s focal point said, “There are cases of girls getting pregnant—they [the family and camp management committee] find out the responsible person and they get married.”151

As of September 10, 2003, thirty-five refugee women and girls were “missing” from the camps.152 The refugee camps are close to the Nepal-India border and in the past few years there have been confirmed instances of girls and women trafficked from the camps. In previous years, Maiti-Nepal, a national anti-trafficking NGO, has intercepted refugee women and girls at the border that it suspects to be potential victims of trafficking.153 Indian police have discovered others, months or years later, involved in sex work in Mumbai. One mother whose daughter has been missing for almost a year shared her agony, as well as the poor communication she has had with camp authorities. She said:

I have five children, but one is missing. She is thirteen years old. In the evening, a girl had come and went away with my daughter. Someone saw her at Kakarbhitta.154 After a long interval, there was a call from the Mumbai police. This information was given to others, to UNHCR and the RCU. No one has come to speak to me. I feel she won’t know how to come back home, she doesn’t know how to read. Days pass, at night I can’t sleep. Children don’t know how much we love them.155

The frequency of “elopements,” in which girls disappear for a few days and then return newly married, dulled the immediate reaction required to intervene in a trafficking case. More information campaigns about the warning signals of trafficking and the importance of informing a friend or family member when eloping are critical for implementing an effective response. In one case, two young women disappeared from a camp in the company of some local boys. Although a representative from UNHCR conducted an initial interview with the parents, they failed to follow-up adequately. They assumed it was an “elopement” case and did not know the women were still missing a week later until informed by Human Rights Watch researchers.156

Women’s Focal Points

The “women’s focal point” has been an instrumental part of the strategy to address gender-based violence in the camps. The refugee woman in this position facilitates direct access to UNHCR so that individuals can avoid the multiple layers of camp management in cases of gender-based violence, and provides a resource for those who desire support for women’s issues at the camp-level. One women’s focal point described her duties like this:

My main responsibilities are to look after women’s problems. Like fights between husband and wife and to support women if they are being suppressed by their neighbors. The types of cases we see are attempted rape, bigamy, attempted suicide due to fights at home, and suicide by rope. In most cases, women think of their family and defamation and they suppress it. If it is intolerable, then they come. People don’t know about the women’s focal point, they usually come referred through others.157

Some confusion remains about the role of the women’s focal point among refugees and even other refugee workers. As the maternal and child health supervisor in one camp said “women come to the focal point for problems. There have only been two cases, only high cases reach her. Most fights get settled at the sector level.”158 In some camps, refugees perceived the women’s focal point’s responsibilities to be confined to cases of rape and suicide, whereas in other camps, refugees approached the women’s focal point about a range of issues including domestic violence and polygyny. Human Rights Watch interviewed some refugee women who did not realize they could approach the women’s focal point directly, instead believing they had to go through their subsector head and sector head first. Kina R., whose husband was selling the family’s rations for alcohol said, “I am not talking to the women’s focal point—. I want to go step by step, not go directly to the women’s focal point.”159

The women serving as women’s focal points felt overwhelmed and without exception sought more training. Sanchu B. said, “I require training for counseling as it is difficult.”160 Ambika T. summarized the feelings of the others when she reflected, “I have too much load, no mental rest. There is an overburden of work, I feel I will go crazy with all the counseling I have to do. There are so many cases pending. While cooking, I think of how to solve these cases, even while sleeping. I don’t have training, I don’t know how to deal with them.”161 While they demonstrated great resolve and commitment, most also questioned whether they would be willing to fill the position after their one-year term finished. Kumari G. said, “Sometimes I am frustrated and I feel like leaving, but I want to stick it out for a year.”162

The absence of trained counselors providing regular services in the camps has meant that women’s focal points often serve as counselors themselves, a burdensome responsibility for one refugee woman in each camp. To complement the legal and medical response to gender-based violence, UNHCR should introduce more psycho-social services in the camps. Psychologists, social workers, and counselors have the skills to work with victims of gender-based violence on a sustained basis in order to address issues like domestic violence and long-term trauma. Women’s focal points, critical links in the reporting and referral system, should receive more training on how to work with women and children experiencing gender-based violence, but also should be able to refer these cases to qualified service-providers for counseling.163

Breaches of Confidentiality

The inability of women’s focal points and other involved individuals to ensure the anonymity of persons seeking help and the confidential treatment of their cases threatens the effectiveness of the overall response to gender-based violence in the camps. Ensuring confidentiality is a critical feature of any response to gender-based violence, both to protect a victim’s privacy and safety, and to minimize the risk of social stigma. A system that fails to protect confidentiality may deter victims from reporting their cases and accessing services. Renu M., a women’s focal point, discussed the difficulty of maintaining confidentiality in the overcrowded camps:

I try to keep cases confidential. But the police come to visit, and it is congested, so everyone knows. We try to meet privately, but because it is congested, it is not possible, and I need to report in twenty-four hours. We have the intention that the family, myself, and the unit head should be the only ones to know. But if you take someone to the hospital, there is a queue, so everyone sees. I don’t feel it is possible, the huts are so close together, and immediate treatment has to be started. There is a position for the women’s focal point, but there is no separate office. It should be private—it is difficult to meet with people privately.164

Several factors contributed to the lack of confidentiality accorded gender-based violence cases. Some camp management members and Nepalese authorities do not understand their obligation to exercise discretion about how they discuss cases. For example, when a Human Rights Watch researcher approached a police officer for an interview, he began talking about a recent rape case in detail in front of a gathering crowd before the researcher quickly changed the topic and arranged for a private interview. Counseling board sessions are often open for interested bystanders to watch. Arrests and police beatings of suspected perpetrators of gender-based violence also draw large crowds.

Problems with Administration of Justice

Many victims of gender-based violence are unable to pursue remedies through the criminal justice system because of constraints in Nepalese law. As noted earlier, there are no domestic violence laws and the thirty-five-day statute of limitations prevents many survivors of violence from filing lawsuits. An additional constraint for prosecuting rape cases is the narrow definition of rape, which excludes forced oral sex and other invasive forms of sexual assault.165 One alternative for children is to file cases under the Children’s Act for cruel and unusual treatment. Under this law, cases can be filed for up to one year after the incident, however the maximum punishment is only one year in prison and five to ten thousand rupees [U.S.$65-130]. However, no cases of sexual abuse against children have been prosecuted under the Children’s Act.166

Despite these limitations, UNHCR has facilitated and tracked the prosecution of seventeen cases, which has resulted in ten convictions. As of this writing, the remaining seven cases are pending, awaiting police investigation or a court hearing.167 None of these cases involved the Nepalese government officials or refugee aid workers implicated in the 2002 sexual exploitation scandal because complaints were not made within the thirty-five-day statute of limitations or the families did not wish to file a lawsuit.168 The convictions included cases of attempted rape, rape, and gang rape, and resulted in jail sentences ranging from three to fifteen years. In a case involving trafficking of women, one refugee was sentenced to a cumulative total of seventy-five years in prison.169 One perpetrator was convicted of a lighter public offense for attempted sexual assault and was sentenced twenty-eight thousand rupees [U.S.$364] or six months in jail.170

Survivors of sexual assault must undergo burdensome procedures to get medical reports that are legally admissible in Nepal’s courts. They must first get a requisition letter from the police and then they must go to a government hospital where they are examined by three government doctors. Some of the refugee camps are not located near a government hospital, necessitating long journeys just to reach an authorized doctor. These requirements are especially difficult to comply with at night and result in victims having to wait several hours, or even longer, before they can take a bath or go home. One UNHCR protection officer said:

Because the courts will not recognize an examination by the doctors at AMDA hospital, we had to take the victim to Mechi Zonal hospital. We finally got them in at 9 p.m. Somehow the requisition letter was not passed to the medical supervisor so the three doctors had not been called. The exam was not done until the next morning at 9:30 a.m. [In the government hospitals,] rape cases are not considered emergencies unless the victims are teenagers, or they are bleeding and injured. Usually there is only one doctor at the hospital at night.171

In addition to constraints in Nepalese law and medico-legal procedures, refugees face obstacles when filing complaints with the police. The burden of finding the name and full address of the perpetrators rests with the victim. If the victim cannot provide this information, some police will not register the case. Furthermore the police request that the victim be present to register the case and to sign the forms; they do not allow parents to file on behalf of their children.172

UNHCR and the government of Nepal have also failed to resolve the problem of victims and perpetrators continuing to live in proximity to each other in the camps. Victims may fear retribution, experience harassment, or simply feel uncomfortable crossing paths with their assailant. In a 2002 case, after a woman made a complaint against a teacher on behalf of her child, the teacher’s mother beat her so severely she was hospitalized for more than a month.173 UNHCR has given survivors the option of moving to another camp or resettlement to a third country, but they are often reluctant to leave their neighbors and community. Nepal has refused to allow UNHCR to relocate alleged perpetrators outside of the camps and UNHCR has been reluctant to transfer them between camps as they consider such a move “collective punishment” for the alleged perpetrator’s family. Because it is bound to confidentiality in cases that are not prosecuted, UNHCR cannot warn new communities about the perpetrators’ histories and fears that they will commit additional crimes if moved to new surroundings.174

103 E-mail message from Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat, protection officer, UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal to Human Rights Watch, August 18, 2003.

104 Ibid. The thirty-six rape cases include rape, gang rape, attempted rape, statutory rape, and marital rape. UNHCR also documented three sexual harassment cases, two trafficking cases, two “inappropriate behavior” cases, two attempted sexual abuse cases, one molestation case, three cases of spouse abandonment, and two cases of alleged prostitution.

105 E-mail message from Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat, protection officer, UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal, to Human Rights Watch, September 10, 2003.

106 Ibid. In some cases, refugee families have refused to disclose the identity of child victims to UNHCR because of the social stigma associated with gender-based violence and with talking to UNHCR, who are seen as mainly working on gender-based violence cases.

107 UNHCR has documented and is responding to additional cases involving family disputes, including those over rations, and polygamy-related disputes. In an e-mail to Human Rights Watch, UNHCR clarified that these cases are classified as SGBV only if they involve violence. E-mail message from UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal to Human Rights Watch, August 18, 2003. UNHCR did not explain what type of ration or polygamy-related dispute would not involve some form of economic or psychological violence.

108 Human Rights Watch interview with Nepalese police officer, Beldangi II camp, April 8, 2003.

109 E-mail message from Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat, protection officer, UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal to Human Rights Watch, September 10, 2003.

110 E-mail message from Douglass Cubie, UNV associate protection officer, UNHCR Sub-Office, Damak, Nepal to Human Rights Watch, September 1, 2003.

111 The RCU issued instructions to enforce the no-alcohol policy in the camps in August 2003. E-mail message from Douglass Cubie, UNV associate protection officer, UNHCR Sub-Office, Damak, Nepal to Human Rights Watch, September 1, 2003. Human Rights Watch lacks sufficient information to assess the impact of this directive.

112 Human Rights Watch interview with Dilli T., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, April 3, 2003.

113 Human Rights Watch interview with Kalpana K., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 28, 2003.

114 Human Rights Watch interview with Sapana S., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 28, 2003.

115 Human Rights Watch interview with Shanti D., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 28, 2003.

116 The Manual on Inter-Agency Policies and Practices was first developed by UNHCR Tanzania. UNHCR Nepal tailored the manual for Nepal with the assistance of Beth Vann, global GBV technical advisor, Reproductive Health for Refugees Consortium. Vann spent one week in eastern Nepal in April 2003 to provide training and guidance to UNHCR and implementing partners. E-mail message from Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat, protection officer, UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal to Human Rights Watch, September 1, 2003.

117 Human Rights Watch interview with UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal, March 18, 2003. Revised guidelines call for the dismissal of teachers who have relationships with students and for referral of their cases to the RCU and UNHCR. Caritas Nepal, Guidelines for Bhutanese Refugee Camp Schools (Jhapa: Caritas Nepal, 2003), p. 20. Caritas Nepal had initially refused to dismiss teachers implicated in cases of inappropriate relationships with students, and instead gave them the opportunity to resign. Only a few were dismissed upon UNHCR insistence. Human Rights Watch interview with a humanitarian aid worker who wished to remain anonymous, August 2003.

118 Caritas Nepal, Guidelines for Bhutanese Refugee Camp Schools, p. 43.

119 Caritas Nepal, Guidelines, p. 14.

120 Human Rights Watch interview with a humanitarian aid worker who wished to remain anonymous, June 2003.

121 Human Rights Watch interview with a senior manager from an implementing agency, Jhapa, Nepal, March 24, 2003.

122 Human Rights Watch interview with a senior manager from an implementing agency, Jhapa, Nepal, March 25, 2003. This attitude undermines the gravity of attempted rape. In interviews with Human Rights Watch, staff from implementing partners, RCU administrators, and refugee leadership often made a significant distinction between “rape” and “attempted rape.” The way this distinction is made could lead to a trivialization of attempted rape and undermine how such cases are reported, referred, and addressed.

123 Human Rights Watch interview with a senior manager from an implementing agency, Jhapa, Nepal, March 21, 2003.

124 Human Rights Watch interview with Iain Levine, former co-chair of the IASC Task Force, New York City, September 10, 2003.

125 Human Rights Watch interview with a senior manager from an implementing agency, Jhapa, Nepal, April 9, 2003.

126 UNHCR, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, p. 13.

127 IASC Task Force, “Plan of Action,” p. 1.

128 Human Rights Watch interview with a senior manager from an implementing agency, Jhapa, Nepal, April 9, 2003.

129 A workshop on SGBV for implementing partners, Nepalese government officials, and refugee representatives took place in April 2003. Trainers included UNICEF-New York, Beth Vann, global GBV technical advisor, and UNHCR Headquarters. E-mail message from Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat, protection officer, UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal, to Human Rights Watch, September 10, 2003. Continuing opportunities for training are important as changing attitudes is a long-term process, as new challenges associated with implementation arise, and as new staff join.

130 Human Rights Watch interview with Beena M., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, April 2, 2003.

131 Human Rights Watch interview with Kumari G., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 26, 2003.

132 Human Rights Watch interview with Saraswati D., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 26, 2003.

133 Human Rights Watch interview with Kamala S., BRWF Camp Secretary, Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 30, 2003.

134 E-mail message from Douglass Cubie, UNV associate protection officer, UNHCR Sub-Office, Damak, Nepal to Human Rights Watch, September 1, 2003.

135 Human Rights Watch interview with Ambika T., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, April 4, 2003.

136 Human Rights Watch interview with camp-level RCU administrator, Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, April 1, 2003. See footnote 122 regarding attitudes about attempted rape.

137 Counseling Boards often resolve cases by creating written agreements outlining behavior to which both parties must abide.

138 Human Rights Watch interview with Pandu R., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 31, 2003.

139 Human Rights Watch interview with Dhan Maya S., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 29, 2003.

140 In September 2003, UNHCR stated that domestic violence cases are increasingly brought to their attention from different channels, in part due to their renewed daily presence in the camps. E-mail message from Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat, protection officer, UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal, to Human Rights Watch, September 10, 2003.

141 Human Rights Watch interview with Nar Maya P., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 29, 2003. In this case, Nar Maya P.’s husband was asked to sign a piece of paper each day promising not to drink or to beat his wife. When he failed to comply with this rule, no action was taken, including responding to Nar Maya P.’s application for separate rations.

142 Human Rights Watch interview with Nar Maya P., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 29, 2003.

143 Human Rights Watch interview with Yasoda D., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 31, 2003.

144 Human Rights Watch interview with Kina R., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 31, 2003.

145 Ibid.

146 Human Rights Watch interview with Sita L., BRWF camp secretary, Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, April 2, 2003.

147 Human Rights Watch interview with Durga S., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 31, 2003.

148 E-mail message from UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal to Human Rights Watch, August 15, 2003.

149 Human Rights Watch interview with Sanchu B., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, April 2, 2003.

150 Human Rights Watch interview with Radhika S., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 26, 2003.

151 Human Rights Watch interview with Sanchu B., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, April 2, 2003.

152 E-mail message from Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat, protection officer, UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal, to Human Rights Watch, September 10, 2003.

153 Human Rights Watch interview with a humanitarian aid worker who wished to remain anonymous, June 2003. and E-mail message from UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, July 22, 2003. Maiti-Nepal told UNHCR that it had intercepted twenty-five refugee women and girls over two years. UNHCR has confirmed two trafficking cases.

154 Kakarbhitta is an open border crossing between Nepal and India.

155 Human Rights Watch interview with Lila B., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, April 1, 2003.

156 Human Rights Watch interview with Tila M., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 24, 2003; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with UNHCR protection officer, UNHCR Sub-Office, Bhadrapur, Nepal, March 24, 2003.

157 Human Rights Watch interview with Yasoda D., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 31, 2003.

158 Human Rights Watch interview with Rupa K., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 27, 2003.

159 Human Rights Watch interview with Kina R., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 31, 2003.

160 Human Rights Watch interview with Sanchu B., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, April 2, 2003.

161 Human Rights Watch interview with Ambika T., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, April 4, 2003.

162 Human Rights Watch interview with Kumari G., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 27, 2003.

163 According to Beth Vann, a GBV specialist who conducted a one-week training in the camps, the women’s focal points should also receive more support and regular supervision. Human Rights Watch interview with Beth Vann, global GBV technical advisor, Arlington, VA, August 29, 2003.

164 Human Rights Watch interview with Renu M., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 28, 2003.

165 Muluki Ain 2020 [Country Code 1963], chapter on Rape, number 1. Rape is defined as “a sexual intercourse with any girl, widow or married woman, if below the age of sixteen, in any manner whether with or without consent, and if above the age of sixteen without her free will and consent in any manner with physical force, coercion or undue influence deemed to be a rape.” The rape laws do not protect boys or men.

166 E-mail message from Douglass Cubie, UNV associate protection officer, UNHCR Sub-Office, Damak, Nepal to Human Rights Watch, September 1, 2003. According to Cubie, all previous prosecutions relying upon the Children’s Act relate to cases of child labor.

167 E-mail message from Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat, protection officer, UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal, September 10, 2003. UNHCR has hired a female Nepalese lawyer and has implemented a subagreement with the Nepal Bar Association to provide refugees with legal representation.

168 Human Rights Watch interview with a humanitarian aid worker who wished to remain anonymous, June 2003. The RCU administrator accused of sexually harassing refugee women was reassigned to another post—not because of the sexual exploitation allegations, but because he made eight fraudulent travel claims.

169 E-mail message from Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat, protection officer, UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal, September 10, 2003.

170 In three cases, UNHCR ensured the implementation of newly enacted provisions of Nepalese law regarding the holding of court hearings in camera. This was the first time in Nepal that these provisions were applied to a sexual offense case. E-mail message from Douglass Cubie, UNV associate protection officer, UNHCR Sub-Office, Damak, Nepal, to Human Rights Watch, September 1, 2003 and e-mail message from Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat, protection officer, UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal, to Human Rights Watch, September 10, 2003.

171 Human Rights Watch interview with UNHCR official, UNHCR Sub-Office, Bhadrapur, Nepal, April 8, 2003.

172 Ibid.

173 Human Rights Watch interview with a humanitarian aid worker who wished to remain anonymous, June 2003. The woman was hospitalized in Kathmandu for a month. Despite this, the NGO Caritas initially refused to dismiss the teacher.

174 Human Rights Watch interview with Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat, protection officer, UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal, July 22, 2003. UNHCR is currently conducting a mapping exercise of alleged perpetrators and victims to explore relocation within the same camp. E-mail message from Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat to Human Rights Watch, September 10, 2003.

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September 2003