he UN human rights committee has urged Nepal to investigate the gang-rape of a woman during the country’s civil war in a landmark decision that is the first to deal with an individual case of sexual violence during the conflict.
The UNHRC’s decision refers to the case of a woman known as Purna Maya, who was raped in 2004 by Nepalese soldiers. Maya, whose name has been changed to protect her, suffered serious injuries during the attack, including a severe haemorrhage of the uterus, which required its removal by surgery.
While there is little documentation of rape and sexual violence during the conflict between Maoist guerrillas and government forces that raged in Nepal from 1996 to 2006, it is believed such crimes were widespread. Research by Human Rights Watch found that women who were relatives of Maoist suspects, or were believed to be Maoist supporters, were targeted by the security forces. Maoist combatants also attacked women who refused to support their party.
Social taboos, a lack of protection for those speaking out and the very low chances of perpetrators being prosecuted mean few women have reported such crimes. The high prevalence of sexual violence, even in peacetime, also makes women less likely to report it.
“With some women, even the husband doesn’t know,” said Om Prakash Sen Thakuri, director of Advocacy Forum-Nepal, a human rights organisation that supported Maya’s case in conjunction with Redress, which seeks justice for survivors of torture. “In one case a small girl was raped when she was a child. Now she’s an adult but her mum doesn’t want her to pursue the case because it will affect her future and she will be in trouble for her marriage.”
On top of social stigma, women in Nepal also face several legal barriers to justice. Although Maya’s case was first reported to officials in 2006, it has still not been investigated. In 2011, her lawyers were barred from lodging a complaint with the police because under Nepalese law rape must be reported within 35 days – a limitation that has since been extended to six months. The supreme court rejected an appeal calling for the registration of the case.
But, in response to Maya’s case, the UNHRC stated that she was subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, inhuman treatment and gender discrimination. It called on Nepal to punish those responsible, and to provide her with full reparation, including reimbursement for the medical expenses incurred. Though an interim relief programme set up by the Nepalese government has provided support to people whose relatives were killed or “disappeared”, victims of sexual violence were excluded from the scheme. The committee also urged Nepal to adopt legislation to make torture a crime in its domestic law and to remove other barriers to justice for rape survivors.
Tejshree Thapa, senior south Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the decision is symbolic, and it is unlikely Nepal will act on the recommendations. “I doubt the government will pay attention, and the UN has no muscle to really do anything more than issue its statement,” she said.
She added that the UN had a duty to ensure promises made during Nepal’s peace deal were maintained. “Transitional justice has become everyone’s favourite catchphrase these days. But it’s important to remember that Nepal was one of the first to set up nationally. It was a huge deal when it first started and it’s part of an important legacy that the UN has to watch out for what happens in Nepal,” she said.
Jaya Luintel, a women’s rights activist who works with survivors of the conflict through the Story Kitchen, added that women, who are often living with guilt and shame as a result of rape, need more than legal justice. “When you listen to women the way they define justice is totally different from the discourse that is happening from a legal perspective,” she said. Even if a perpetrator is punished, women still fear they will be abandoned by their husbands and face social stigma.
“They are looking for social justice and family justice,” said Luintel. “Women really need that from the government: a public apology saying, ‘Sisters of Nepal, it was not your fault.’ So that it would at least help women to heal the trauma they have been carrying in their hearts.”
Maya’s husband, who had been living with another woman at the time of the rape, cut off support for her and their daughter after hearing about what had happened. Maya is still living as a displaced person in Nepal and works as a labourer. On top of psychological trauma, her injuries have meant that she still has to visit hospital twice a month.
Madeleine Rees, secretary general of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, said the decision was an important breakthrough for Maya. “This brave woman, by pushing and pushing and having good representation, has been able to show that the state has been wrong, that she is vindicated … her right to justice should have been recognised,” she said. “In respect of her rights, this is huge. My only concern is, will Nepal do it?”