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Case of contempt

DEC 27 -

When in 2005, 15-year old Maina Sunuwar was taken in to Army custody and then tortured and killed, the story slowly evolved into a symbolic event reminiscent of the horrors of the conflict years. NGOs tactfully and rightly turned the story into a campaign tool, demanding justice for the dead 15 year-old. Images of Maina’s mother and father crying and holding up their daughter’s photos became widely circulated, a tragic reminder of the violations of human rights that took place during our 10 years of conflict. Maina Sunuwar’s case continues to hold an incredible amount of value in the demands for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Disappearance Commission to be formed. But its value is abruptly ended there.

There’s a larger story in Maina’s case that was swept under the rug. Her story is also one of violence against women. A transforming Nepali state means one where women’s rights are respected and equal. If one remembers, this is an integral part of the peace process and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which was signed in the wake of Maina’s death. Those who took forward Maina’s case should have kept that in mind. But the mood back then was such that the emphasis on the need for transitional justice was so high on the agendas of those who championed the human rights cause that the aspect of violence against women was unfortunately marginalised. The greatest crime, to which Maina was a victim, was not a war-time crime, but torture, abuse and death of a girl.

If one examines the sheer number of young girls and women who have met—and continue to meet—a similar fate to that of Maina’s at the hands of their own kin, strangers and state forces, it is evident that rape, torture and death of Nepali girls and women was not an occurrence of only the conflict years. It is an everyday reality of our society.

A recent example is of Sita Rai, who was robbed, tortured (psychologically, if not physically) and allegedly raped by a policeman. The culprits in this case, as with Maina’s, are those employed by the state and in the case of the constable, its security force.  

Sita Rai lived and mustered the courage to speak up against the crime committed against her, but most women are shunned to silence. After all, a survivor of rape or sexual and physical abuse is no hero in any society. They continue to be vilified and are not given the platform they deserve in honour of their courage. It’s at these crucial moments that our state, media and activists remain eerily quiet.

One only has to remember the case of police officer Suntali Dhami of Accham in 2010 who was gang-raped by three fellow officers in Accham to realise that silence is creating an atmosphere of acceptance. Her culprits—officers sanctioned to protect the citizenry—got away with just a few years in jail

as the government, politicians, media and civil society turned a blind eye. Some politicians from the Far-West, tried very hard to suppress the whole episode. The few protests that took place were met with lathi-charges and apathy. There were accusations that Bhim Rawal, then the Home Minister and a native of Accham, pushed hard to delay the process.

Moreover, in the initial days after the story surfaced, the media was flooded with unhelpful stories full of doubt and skepticism. With Sita Rai’s case, the majority of the mainstream media chose to completely ignore the story until the voices, especially in social media like Twitter, became so important that it could no longer be ignored.

Unsurprisingly, there were—and still are—rumours doing the rounds that Sita had “asked for it,” and that the rape was “consensual” long before there was any evidence to support that claim. Ultimately, the Constable Parshuram Basnet owned up to the rape and only then did the story receive any real attention. The rape is now being classified by lawyers as “forced consent.” It’s an astounding wonder how force could, in any way, be a kind of consent.

This trend of doubting a woman’s claims to rape has become dangerously common. Notions that women seek popularity or fame by claiming to be raped is simply preposterous and can only be seen as evidence of a deeply patriarchal society that is deeply insensitive to women’s rights. It’s fair game to say that every man is innocent until proven guilty, but surely if a woman is claiming to be raped, she deserves some benefit of the doubt and the right to be heard seriously.

The injustice does not end with rape. Ther are allegations of witchcraft abound, which left one woman blinded a few months ago in the Valley. Just in the past few weeks, two girls

have lost their lives after having been set ablaze alive — 16-year old Shiwa Hasami of Gulariya was burnt alive by her neighbour for not eloping with him. She died fighting for her life in hospital. Just yesterday, 18-year old Bindu Kumari Thakur of Bara was also burnt alive and died immediately. The cases just keep coming.

In such a scenario, one might think that the time was apt for the state and politicians to speak out. In the case of Sita Rai, the responsibility of making sure that Constable Basnet and the immigration officials are given due punishment lies squarely with the government, more specifically, the police and the politicians who oversee them. Giving these officials a clean chit or a watered-down sentence will only make Nepalis even more contemptuous of the state. These were not gangsters about town robbing and raping a woman—they were the government’s men. For this, a formal apology on part of the Prime Minister and the head of Police is already long-overdue. But it seems the politicians have long-forgotten

that the “peace” they wish to instill requires justice and that a large chunk of that justice is about guaranteeing equality for women.

Posted on: 2012-12-27 08:34