Justice is a far cry from reality for sexual violence survivors of the Nepal civil war

Ms T (name changed) had only turned 16 when Nepal Army arrested her. She had spent two years in the Maoist People’s Liberation Army and was returning home when the government-side army took her to the Ghorahi barracks and committed sexual violence.

“They held me captive for three months,” she says. “I feel numb when I think about what I faced at the army camp.”

She says that the army tortured her by taking her clothes off and hitting her with the barrel of their gun. They even hit her in her genitals. “They tied me and undressed me. I went through a lot. I used to plead and ask for mercy, but they never listened as they continued to abuse me,” says T.

She stayed in the army barracks for three months and further six months in police custody before being released.

It has been over 18 years since this incident took place, but for her, it still feels like yesterday. The abuse she faced at the hands of the army still gives her nightmares.

“My uterus still hurts from the sexual violence I face there,” she says. “My body also doesn’t function well. I don’t have external bruises, but, mentally, I don’t think I will ever recover.”

Ms T says that she has not even been able to share what happened to her with her husband. She does not think she can ever tell him or her kids. Knowing how everyone would treat her, she has kept this to herself for years.

“It’s okay I’ve learnt to live with it,” says Ms T, who has also been taking depression medicines.

Since the end of the Nepal civil war (the Maoist insurgency) in 2006, hundreds of women like her have come forward to share stories of sexual violence torture by the warring parties, but none of them have received justice. Things are so bad that the state does not even consider these women war survivors.

Shocking stories

According to data, around 17,000 lost their lives, 2,000 went missing and 16,000 were injured in the war between 1996 and 2006. But, these statistics have nothing about the sexual violence women faced during the war.

Sushila Chaudhary, the general secretary of the National Conflict Victim Woman Network, says while the government has addressed some demands of the conflict victims who died, when it comes to women who were abused, the government has not even tried to even take stock of what happened. Even when they do file complaints at the transitional justice bodies, they get no response whatsoever.

War-victim-from-Tulsipur-Dang-Tina_ Sexual violence
Ms T (name changed) from Tulsipur was raped by the Army.

It was 1999 when a few people claiming to be Maoists broke into the house of Simran (name changed). Her husband was away for work in India and she lived with her six-month-old daughter and four-year-old son. As soon as the Maoists entered, they threatened to kill her if she did not do what they told her to. A few hours later, the group of Maoist fighters raped Simran one by one.

“When the first one raped me, I became unconscious. There were five of them and I don’t recall how many times it happened. When I woke up, I was covered in blood,” says Simran.

It has been 23 years, yet a certain fear engulfs her whenever she hears the word ‘Maoists’. She gets angry because that incident changed her life.

“Due to that incident, my relationship with my husband is not good. When he comes back from India, all we do is a quarrel. I have hurt my uterus too,” she says.

The sexual violence incident left both mental and physical marks as she has been diagnosed with depression and has been taking medicines since the incident.

The same year in Tulsipur of Dang, another incident shattered the life of another woman. A group of security personnel forced entry into the house of Rita (name changed) and raped her. She was sleeping when a few people force-entered, threatened to kill her and raped her.

“It’s been 23 years, but the wounds seem fresh. Whenever I see the police or army personnel, I get scared because of what they did to me,” says Rita. 

Like the women above, Rita did not share this story with many people as she fears social banishment. To cope, she is also taking anti-depressants. 

But, a few months ago, she mustered the courage to file a written complaint at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But, her case has not moved forward.

“All I want the state to do is give me justice and acknowledge me as a war survivor. Is that too much to ask for,” she says.

Search for state recognition

Women of all ages were abused during the war, say human rights experts.

From the above examples, it is clear that the government does not care about sexual violence survivors. The government has to assume how many women were abused during the war based on complaints it gets at the National Human Rights Commission, Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons. 

Even though people who died, got injured or were missing were categorised as war victims, and their families were offered some sort of relief by the government, when it comes to women who were abused, this has not been the case.

Chaudhary from the conflict victim network says action should have been taken against culprits who raped these women. But, 15 years on, nothing has happened.

“The government hasn’t even tried to ask these women if they are doing okay. Justice is very far away,” says Chaudhary.

She says that this also shows how lightly the government takes incidents like sexual violence.

“Since they are not categorised as war victims or survivors, they haven’t been eligible for any sort of relief. It shows how insensitive the government is when they can’t do anything to help these women who have been hiding their pain for all these years,” she says.

Ms T who was abused in the army barracks says she was treated like an animal there. 

“There is so much pain inside people like me who were on the receiving end of some inhumane treatment. It’s only fair that we are compensated,” she says.

She says it was disgusting that the government was not treating them as war survivors despite them coming out and sharing what happened to them during the war. This has assured her and others like her that they might never get justice.

Fear of opening up

Representational image

Sarita (name changed) from Rukum was gang-raped when she was 16. The villagers found her body at a jungle where she had been raped by five Maoist cadres.

She is 37 now and has a family. But, none of them know what she has gone through. Her parents know, but she has not been able to share it with her husband or anyone else. She is afraid that if she shares, her husband will leave her. Fearing societal backlash, she has not even reported this case to the authority.

Because she was raped when she was young, she is facing problems in her reproductive system. This causes physical pain, but she says she will never share this with her husband because she knows what might happen. In this case, the chances of the survivor getting relief from the government in nonexistent.

Both the army and Maoists have raped or abused women during the war. But, with women not wanting to speak out, the actual number of women who were abused will be unknown to all. Things would be different if these survivors were assured justice, but with that not happening, it is unlikely anyone will come forward, say women rights activists.

“These women have families and children. They fear that if they open up about what happened two decades ago, everyone in the society will know and her children and family will have to face the wrath. It’s a no-win situtation for these women,” says Chaudhary.

Sexual violence in the name of war

Women of all ages were subject to sexual violence during the war.  Most of these incidents took place when the army and police went patrolling in the villages where they felt there were Maoist fighters.

In 2005, a six-year-old girl was raped by Nepal Army personnel in Rukum. The child, now 24, says how the incident still haunts her mentally. She even got ill following the incident as she still suffers pain in her abdomen and lower back.

“There are so many incidents like these where patrols have forcefully entered and abused women here in Rukum,” says Prakash Chaudhary, the chairman of conflict victim network in Dang.

He says that the army took women accusing them of being Maoists and tortured them.

“The army raped a lot of women accusing them of being Maoists. The number of women they abused is crazy,” he says.

There was even a case when a woman who went looking for her husband who died in the war was raped by the army.

“The woman even gave birth to a child out of that rape. But, she’s facing issues and is looking at how she can give the child a citizenship certificate,” he says.

Prakash Chaudhary says that even though some of these sexual violence complaints were reported, the government has done nothing because both – the state and the Maoists – are not willing to accept that these sexual abuses and rapes were war crimes.

Data issues

Simran from Tulsipur filed a complaint at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2017. But, her case is yet to be heard.

“It’s odd why they are not willing to accept that we are war survivors. This is wrong at many levels,” says Simran.

Following the peace process, two commissions were formed to deal with these cases. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was responsible for finding out the truth about incidents of gross violation of human rights in the course of armed conflict while the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons was formed to seek the truth on the cases of enforced disappearance, to recommend reparation to victims and prosecution to the accused ones.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has over 64,000 complaints from war survivors. The commission’s spokesperson Man Dhakal says there are over 300 cases related to sexual violence, but he adds that this is not the exact data because he knows that a lot of women have no come forward.

“These women who faced sexual violence have said they were physically abused instead. When we looked into it, we find that almost all physical violence cases are actually sexual violence cases,” says Dhakal, adding physical violence cases have crossed 20,000.

According to the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC), there are over 300 sexual violence cases in Rukum alone. And, these are only those cases where the women have come forward. WOREC also says that many of the women abused during the war have not come forward.

Maina Karki, an activist, says women have not come forward because the state bodies are not sensitive.

“These women need to be looked at differently. Its been 15 years since the peace process, yet these women are not at peace. If people were more sensitive and willing to listen without judgement, more women would definitely come forward, but right now, they don’t because most of them are scared and don’t trust anyone,” says Karki.

Lack of proper treatment

Even the government agrees that women who faced sexual violence have not received any relief from the government. The state offered a million rupees to families of people who died or went missing in the war while it has been handing out relief allowance to those injured in the war. 

Survivors of 17 other incidents have also received some form or relief allowance from the state, but women who were raped have not received a penny. Nor have they received counselling or anything thing else.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Rs 17.26 billion was handed out as relief or allowance to 1.3 million war survivors in the fiscal year 2017/18. But, not a penny went to women who were abused.

Dhakal says that they had recommended the relief for these sexual violence survivors after doing their due research, but nothing has been offered to them yet.

“We studied over 500 cases and asked the ministry to hand them relief allowance. But, our recommendation hasn’t been taken by the ministry yet,” says Dhakal.

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Budhathoki is a journalist, based in Dang.

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