South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Perpetrators of conflict-era sexual violence walk free as women suffer in silence and fear

Publihsed in The Nepali Times on Oct. 28 by Tufan Neupane ::

Gayatri used to study in a secondary school. In 2001, the security forces took her into custody and raped her every night by up to six officers. Nandita was gang raped by soldiers in front of her children. Manorama was raped 11 days after giving birth.  A Maoist cadre in Humla who was eight months pregnant was raped, beaten and then shot in the back.

The Maoists detained Mina for refusing to join a re-education camp, and treated her like a sex slave for four months. They threatened to kill her if she told anyone. A 12-year-old girl who was cutting grass was raped by a local Maoist commissar. Maoists entered a home and forced a young woman to cook for them, and when they found out she was alone in the house they raped her at knife-point.

These war-era crimes between 1996-2006 are among hundreds investigated and detailed in two recent reports by Human Rights Watch (Silenced and Forgotten) and the UN’s OHCHR (Nepal Conflict Report). However, the government hasn’t yet recognised wartime rape as a crime, which has prevented the victims from receiving compensation as other conflict survivors and their families have.

Although detailed lists have been prepared since the 2008 Comprehensive Peace Accordabout summary executions, torture and disappearances, rape has been ignored. Both the HRWand OHCHR reports say a majority of the cases investigated were perpetrated  by the Army, Police or APF. They say the state has failed to address the need to investigate rapes, try and prosecute the guilty,  extend compensation and provide psychosocial counseling and medical attention to the survivors.

Under a section of sexual violence, the OHCHR report says: ‘There is currently not enough information to establish whether sexual violence committed by Security Forces was institutionalized or systematised. However, it does appear that implicit consent was given at higher ranks which served to encourage a culture of impunity for opportunistic sexual violence, and suspicion of Maoist affiliation was used as an excuse to avoid scrutiny or accountability.’

Mandira Sharma of Advocacy Forum which helped in the HRW report, says: “The state’s behavior has protected perpetrators, and it has trampled on the rights of the rape victims.”

One rape victim tells human rights investigators: ‘My family did not overreact to whatever happened to me because almost every woman here has been raped, some countless times. Some have been so badly injured by repeated rapes by different army personnel that they are barely able to stand.’

There is a need to amend the current criminal code for sexual violence because under existing laws, perpetrators has used loopholes to evade prosecution. The definition of rape has been to broadened so that penetration should not be the only criteria for a violation to be considered rape. HRW has found incidents where security forces inserted various objects, including salt and chilli powder, into the vagina of prisoners to torture them.

The statute of limitation of 35 days for evidence to be permissible in the case of rape has been used by the state to dismiss all conflict rape complaints that have been filed. Which means that even if the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is formed and starts investigating wartime sexual violence, they will be dismissed.

“If the definition of rape is not amended, and unless new laws are drafted, the Commission will try future cases on the basis of existing laws,” explains human rights lawyer, Sapana Pradhan Malla. “In most parts of the world, the statute of limitation does not hold for cases of gross violations of human rights like rape.”

Activists say although 35 days is not a short time, it is impractical to insist on that time limit for war rapes. Many victims did not tell their families for fear of ostracisation and never sought medical treatment, and now that some much time has passed it is difficult for them to get justice.

Says Mandira Sharma of Advocacy Forum: “The accounts of eye-witnesses or of other rape victims should be accepted as evidence in the courts, and with proper training doctors and psychiatrists can determine if the person is a victim of sexual violence or not.”

Sharma says the state must be careful to ensure that the cases are handled discretely, and the privacy of the victims is respected. The victims should then get justice, compensation and long-term medical and psychiatric care if the survivor has been physically or mentally scarred.