8-14 August 2014 #719

On the sidelines of justice

A gender-blind and victim insensitive TRC will be a futile exercise in picking at old wounds
Trishna Rana
ONLY THE TRUTH: Purnimaya Lama, seen here at her family home in Dapcha Chatrebangh of Kavre district, continues her struggle to find the truth behind her husband's disappearance and murder.
As fighters, as ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire, as mothers, wives, and sisters who lost loved ones, Nepali women have had to bear an inordinate brunt of the decade long conflict. However, the country's transitional justice mechanism as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act 2071 have failed to acknowledge that women's suffering and experience of victimhood were different than men because of their place at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Female victims, despite their overwhelming numbers and the crucial role they have played in promoting peace at the grassroots, have not been afforded the space to shape the debates on the national level. "We still haven't been able to convince our leaders and policymakers that women's rights are an integral part of the peace process," says Renu Rajbhandari of Women's Rehabilitation Centre.

With the death, disappearance, displacement of their male relatives, many women had to grapple with the added responsibilities of being the sole bread earners, helping others cope with trauma, and leading the fight for justice while continuing to fulfil their regular social and religious obligations.

"For years I travelled back and forth between Kathmandu and Kavre in search of my husband," says Purnimaya Lama whose husband Arjun was taken away by the Maoists on 19 April 2005 while he was attending a program at a local school in Dapcha, Chatrebangh. Lama was held captive for about two months before he was killed, his body has never been found.

"The Maoists threatened to finish our whole family if we continued looking. Since we could no longer live in the village, me and my six children became displaced. My father-in-law died of grief. At times I feel like no one in this world has suffered through the pain I have." Purnimaya's frustration is palpable.

The six men she named in the FIR including former Maoist lawmaker Agni Sapkota walk around freely and there have been no efforts to provide the family with closure by helping locate Arjun's body.

In the absence of love, affection, and security that their husbands provided, widowed women have found themselves at greater risk of abuse from neighbours and villagers. Laxmi Koirala's husband Nandalal, a school teacher in Saurpani of Gorkha district, was killed on 16 March 1998 by the Maoists. Although her family was supportive, villagers drove her out because she had spoken out against the injustice and demanded that the guilty be hung.

Says Laxmi: "I left behind everything I knew and moved to Kathmandu with my toddlers. We lived like refugees in the capital, struggling to pay rent and school fees."

While the interim relief package started by the state in 2008 helped many war affected women to move out of the four walls of their house for the first time, the money also became a source of conflict within the family. Even as the next of kin, not all widows had access to the relief, some had to share it unfairly with extended family members, and those who remarried did not receive a single paisa.

"After her husband's death, the widow loses trust among her family. In-laws worry that she might remarry, claim a stake on the property, and neglect the children," explains Rajin Rayamajhi, program officer at Women for Human Rights, an organisation that has been working with single women for the past two decades. "There have been cases where disputes over monetary relief led to violence against daughter-in-laws."

A future reparation program should therefore not only make sure that widows have unhindered access to financial packages, but also broaden the scope of relief. Reparation should be made available to those who have remarried because their pain and suffering are equally valid. Many war affected women also say that ensuring free schooling and university for children, medical care, running skill development and training programs, and connecting families directly to the job market are far more beneficial than a one-time monetary compensation.

"We want justice, but we also want financial support. How long are we supposed to sustain our families with the Rs 1 million compensation?" questions Situ Joshi of Bhaisipati who lost her husband and two children in the Badarmude bus explosion on 6 July 2005. The blast left her youngest son disabled. "If our husbands were alive, they would have gone to any length to provide for and educate the children, now the state has to take guardianship and make them capable citizens."

The blatant impunity that both the security forces and rebels enjoyed during the war meant that large number of women became direct targets of systematic abuse. Rape, sexual abuse, pretend marriages, cases of abandoned wives, and children born from rape were not uncommon. The TRC Act includes two provisions that can be seen as small victories for women victims. Rape and sexual violence are defined as 'serious violation of human rights' and the commission cannot recommend rape cases for amnesty. However, those accused of committing sexual violence (ie forced prostitution, sexual slavery, strip searches) can be recommended for amnesty or reconciliation with victims.

The effectiveness of the commission in providing justice to rape and sexual violence survivors is also curtailed by our anachronistic domestic laws. First, the 35-day statute of limitation for reporting rape is still in effect despite the Supreme Court's verdict in January 2014 demanding that this clause be removed. Second, since local law defines rape as non-consensual penetration by sexual organ, other acts that count as rape in international law are rendered invalid. Third, in the absence of forensic or medical evidence, it's unclear how the state envisions going about verifying statements.

But the larger concern here, given the immense social stigma attached to sexual violence and the culture of victim blaming, is how many women will risk 'dishonouring' their families and jeopardising the life that they have so painstakingly rebuilt over the past decade by sharing stories of their abuse? Even those who are willing to open up might not have much trust and confidence in the state because it has done so little for them in the eight years since the end of the conflict.

The Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation has records of the number of killed, disabled, and injured, but rape and sexual violence survivors have become the invisible victims of war. When the government distributed the interim relief package in 2008, this demographic was completely left out.

"If the government had set up health camps or counseling centres in targeted VDCs, women would have had a space to talk and gotten time to heal and much of the documentation could have been completed by the time a TRC was formed. Some might have then felt comfortable sharing their stories in front of a commission or a hearing," explains Rajbhandari. "Now if we ask survivors to testify or come out in the open, we will be revictimising them."

Mandira Sharma of the Advocacy Forum also sees the failure of the media and human rights groups for not recognising and respecting survivors of sexual violence. "If we had treated the women like national heroes, provided medical care, and shown our support, it would have helped get rid of the stigma and maybe they would have felt encouraged to tell their stories to society," she says.

While human rights activists admit that the TRC Act in its present form is neither victim-centric, nor female-centric, they still see scope to make the process gender-friendly if the working procedures, which remain to be written, can ensure greater female participation and establish clear guidelines for confidentiality.

"As a society we don’t talk about personal issues with the opposite sex. So asking a survivor of sexual violence to speak up in front of male lawyers, male judges, male officers is not only uncomfortable, but also creates an unbalanced power relation," explains lawyer and former CA member Sapana Pradhan Malla.

Currently, the Act stipulates a minimum quota of one woman in the five-member recommendation committee as well as the commissions themselves. Renu Rajbhandari recommends having a female majority at every level from commissioners to experts to officials to lawyers to make the process truly inclusive.

She says: "Women won't neglect hardcore issues like extra-judicial killings or disappearances, but men have a tendency of leaving out 'soft' women centric issues like rape and sexual violence."

Another way to build confidence and create an enabling environment for survivors is by selecting women who have not only experienced the war first hand, but can also advocate fiercely on behalf of their sisters. And there are plenty of potential candidates: Laxmi Koirala to Purnimaya Lama to Devi Sunuwar whose daughter was killed by the Army in 2005, and Sabitri Shrestha (see below), who lost two brothers and a niece to the conflict.

These women have been the face of Nepal's transitional justice movement and despite great personal risks, they continue to fight to know the truth about their loved ones and seek redress for crimes committed during the war. However, like with the men, the biggest challenge for the future commission will be to avoid politically appointed women candidates who are neither qualified nor have the freedom to be critical of the process.

The Act and the commission are a result of the blood and sacrifice of thousands of Nepalis so a gender-blind and victim insensitive TRC will be a futile exercise in picking at old wounds. While not all cases can be investigated or prosecuted, the state and political parties should at least follow sound procedures and show victims that they are making a genuine effort towards providing justice.

Beyond truth seeking, investigation, and prosecution, the commission should also look into ways of improving women's access to justice and addressing the inherent inequalities in our legal and social system that led to exploitation in the first place.

Sabitri Shrestha, Kathmandu

You cannot even begin to imagine the suffering we have endured. We lost three family members to the conflict. In 1998, my younger brother Ujjan was killed by the Maoists in Okhaldhunga for marrying a woman of a higher caste. Four years later, my elder brother Ganesh was murdered by the party for filing a FIR with the police. Ganesh's daughter, Rachana, committed suicide out of guilt because she had unknowingly pointed out her father's whereabouts to his killers.

During festivals, the women in our family can't look each other in the eyes. We go to separate corners in the house and cry by ourselves. I joined the movement because I couldn't bear seeing their tears every day. My mother and sister-in-law are too frail, they can't do much. I am a daughter of this house and I am ready to sacrifice myself for the cause. I know there are many sisters in rural parts of the country who want to participate in the struggle, but they don't have the resources to even feed themselves.

Even those of us who have been fighting tirelessly for justice all these years have not been heard. How much more pressure should we put, what can we do to make the state and political parties heed to our demands? None of the leaders understand us because they have not experienced the pain that we have gone through. My brothers' murderers are now big time politicians and they roam around freely even after the Supreme Court found them guilty. But we won't remain quiet, sooner or later the state will have to own up to its mistake.

Losing the head of the household is an immense setback; the family becomes handicapped. The government has to first become our guardian: provide for our daily needs, educate our children, give them job opportunities according to their qualification. Secondly, it needs to help us find out why our loved ones were killed, disappeared, or tortured and punish the guilty according to the rule of law. If the state can fulfil these two responsibilities, then us victims will feel that justice has been served.

Read also:

Commissions of convenience, Trishna Rana

Haunted by ghosts of the past, Rubeena Mahato

The disappeared and disquiet of those left behind, Robert Godden

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