In the current political impasse, which has catalysed the institutionalisation of impunity in the country, human rights defenders (HRDs) and especially women human rights defenders (WHRDs) face grave challenges and thus are vulnerable to multiple forms of violation, some even claiming their lives? Existing protection and security mechanisms for WHRDs are dysfunctional. These mechanisms have to be reviewed in the wake of newer and more unconventional challenges being faced by WHRDs on a daily basis. WHRDs have to undergo risks of a dual nature: they are vulnerable because of the fact that they are women (strong patriarchal norms and values act against them); and second, that they fight not for their rights but for the rights of others. Stigmatisation has crippled the lives of the WHRDs and hence heightened the lack of recognition of the invaluable contributions, roles and responsibilities of these defenders.

From defending the rights of the LGBTIs, indigenous minorities, differently-abled individuals, and Dalits to raising issues of discrimination, lawlessness, and patriarchy, WHRDs are working to the best of their abilities and capacities so that others can live a just and meaningful life free from threats and violence. Because of the fact that they challenge the orthodoxy of society, WHRDs bear the major brunt—murder, domestic violence, kidnapping, threats, and character assassinations among others. We have names like Uma Singh who lost her life in the fight for protecting the rights of others; Monica Jha, the Tarai-based journalist who receives regular threats of murder because of her outstanding contribution to advocating for others’ rights and who is yet resolute, despite the warnings, to making lasting change in society.

The question here is for how long these wonderful personalities will remain vulnerable and their contribution unrecognised by the state.  Human rights defenders who are working for issues such as land rights, sexual rights, and against racial discrimination and the issue of debt-bondage are at especially high risk. And in the case of women human rights defenders, the risks double. The cases of WHRDs continue to remain under-reported to a large scale because of consequences of reporting and documentation as well as the lack of a witness protection mechanism in the country.

Nepal entered into the peace process with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) in November 2006. Four years have elapsed since then and the citizenry has yet to see a ray of hope that can protect them from violence and help them in living a life full of dignity and protection.  We may say that the political ideology of the country took a changed direction, however in the case of socio-economics and commitment to human rights of the nation, we are still waiting. Impunity for past crimes has led to more impunity.  And the current status quo has led to increased violence against women and human rights defenders (especially women human rights defenders), food insecurity, issues of access to health care, a dysfunctional justice system and lack of immediate support in case of natural disasters and other difficult situations.

At present, the world is celebrating 16 days of activism against violence against women from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10. Revolving around the theme of militarism and violence against women, the advocates of women’s rights are observing this span of 16 days as a special and exclusive occasion to direct the attention of the concerned authorities towards the issues faced by women because of the fact that they were born as women. These 16 days are indeed an opportunity for us all to focus our attention on the atrocities women have to bear at the hands of their own intimates, let alone the community or the state; as a result of the orthodox mindset of our society—which tends to view women as inferiors and as “others” (a term Simone de Beauvoir uses in her much-controversial book, The Second Sex, to describe the manner in which society regards women as strangers and not the same as men).

Evidences of murder, kidnapping, extortion, threats of murder, character assassination, among others lay before us. Cases of violations are mounting on an unimaginable scale on a daily basis. Underground armed groups are wreaking havoc in the Tarai. Journalists, teachers and lawyers are among the most vulnerable. Freedom of expression has been repressed. Women are suffering—either they are severely beaten, killed, maimed, psychologically harmed, sexually abused, or accused of practicing witchcraft. This is indeed too much for a single nation and a great irony in the birthplace of Lord Gautam Buddha, the epitome of peace.

Human rights mechanisms are indeed in the doldrums at present. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), National Women Commission (NWC), and National Dalit Commission (NDC) which play a principal role in defending and promoting human rights in the country need to be strengthened. NHRC should adopt policies to review its investigation and monitoring processes and work accordingly in the wake of unconventional forms of violence being perpetrated. While doing so, NHRC can also train human rights defenders on protecting themselves from hazards associated with their profession.

The 16 days of activism is also an opportunity for us to assess our commitment, our willingness to stand up for the cause of others in need, our needs and our wants. On one hand we are baffled by the shocking news of the high-level decision on citizenship-which, being framed by individuals of a militarised frame of mind who think that coercion and force can subdue the voices of women, is full of flaws. On the other hand, we have a ray of hope in reflecting on the outcome of the 24-day campaign the case of Laxmi Bohara gave rise to.

The 16 Days of Activism is indeed a great opportunity to us to pay tribute to the heroes who sacrificed their lives so that others can live a dignified life; to salute the thousands of WHRDs who are still on their mission for peace and solidarity; and to appeal to the state to fulfill its commitment to the vanguards of peace.

(Author is Program Coordinator of Violence against Women Campaign in Women’s Rehabilitation Center)

Source: The Kathmandu Post – 01.12.2010