On 24 March 2018 the largest party in the multiparty JOMPOPS platform — Unified Marxist Leninist — hosted a province-level training programme for local elected representatives and party leaders on Nepal’s various new legislations related to gender violence. This programme was prompted by an incident in Kailali district in Province 7, when a local self-professed shaman beat a 17-year-old girl in public for around six hours, after accusing her of witchcraft. As if to make matters worse, this had happened on 8 March 2018 the day when people around the world were celebrating International Women’s Day.
Around 100 local leaders, from all the major political parties, participated in the programme, including the Chief Minister of Province 7, Provincial Ministers, Provincial MPs, Mayors, Deputy Mayors, and local party leaders. At the end of the programme, all the participants signed a pledge, declaring that they would work towards eliminating all forms of gender-based violence including practices that demonise women as witches.
The Context –Increasing Gender-Based Violence in Nepal
With an average remaining gender inequality gap of 33 per cent, the South Asian region, including Nepal, is the second lowest on the recent Global Gender Gap Index – behind even Sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, gender violence – including dowry killing, female feticide, killing/torture related to witchcraft accusation, and so-called honour killing – is rampant in large parts of South Asia, victimising and severely negatively impacting the overall socio-economic development of women.
In Nepal, ten years of armed violence has worsened the situation; study after study has shown that the scale of gender-based violence affecting women is increasing alarmingly. This was also identified by participants of JOMPOPS’ programmes designed to encourage more women to enter politics, as the most significant factor preventing women’s engagement. Furthermore, JOMPOPS’ programme participants concluded that failure of political parties to prioritise solutions to the problem of gender-based violence is a key factor responsible for its continued proliferation.
In an attempt to address this, JOMPOPS’ Steering Committee took the opportunity of International Women’s Day in 2014 to launch a campaign, supported by DIPD, to end violence against women (EVAW). As part of its campaign, the platform issued a public statement committing itself to working towards ending violence against women, both, at the multiparty and the intra-party levels. Since then, the platform has instigated several initiatives, including petitioning the Parliament to pass the necessary legislation to eliminate gender-based violence and partnering with organisations, such as the Women’s Commission in Nepal, to work on this issue.
However, incidents of gender-based violence persist. One of the most shocking aspects of the shaman’s attack on the teenager, mentioned earlier, was that the police refused to file a complaint on behalf of the victim against her perpetrator. And the local mayor tried to protect the perpetrator by pushing for reconciliation between the shaman and his victim.
Following this attack, the Steering Committee representative of its largest member party, UML, organised the multiparty training programme in coordination with the local party unit, as part of JOMPOPS’ ongoing EVAW campaign. The aim was to encourage local elected representatives to take firm action against perpetrators of gender-based violence, rather than protect them, and provide succour to victims. The programme was also able to raise the awareness of local officials, including civil servants, of new legislation related to gender-based violence.
Programme – Multiparty Orientation Against Witchcraft
On 26 April 2018, the local unit of UML’s women’s wing hosted a multiparty training programme in Kailali district, in the far west of Nepal where the recent witchcraft beating occurred. This area is geographically remote and most districts in the province perform badly on the Human Development Index. Access to education is poor, so, consequently, socio-political awareness is limited. It was hoped that the programme would not only raise the awareness of local party leaders participating in the training, but also the knowledge of the local people, who the leaders were encouraged to share information about gender-based violence with.
The programme started with a presentation by a legal expert about gender-based legislation, including The Anti-Witchcraft Act, passed by the Parliament in 2015. Although this act is three years old, few decision-makers especially at the local level are aware of it, because it has not been properly publicised, let alone enforced.
A senior central-level party leader spoke on the social implications of use of practices intended to curb so-called witchcraft and why they should be ended. The Chief Minister of Province 7 said that he would pay for the education of the shaman’s victim, and pledged to introduce policies to end such practices. The Chief District Officer, in-charge of the district, also pledged to take action against future perpetrators. Local leaders of all major parties including the opposition, the Nepali Congress party, emphasised the importance of multiparty collaboration to tackle these kinds of issues, urging party members to advance the EVAW campaign at the local level.
At the end of the training programme, around a 100 local leaders including the Chief Minister of the Province signed a declaration to eliminate witchcraft practices in Province 7. Before signing the declaration, the victim was felicitated by the high-level officials present at the programme.
The UML party’s co-ordinator, Garima Shah, who is also a central committee member, said:
This was the first, and so far the only, programme organised by a political party of Nepal in response to such a type of gruesome incident in Province 7. Hence, the significance of the programme. One of the main achievements of the programme is that it has drawn the attention of decision-makers to the issue, and pushed them to take some action. It has also given a message to the civil servants that the act of protecting perpetrators of violence against women, irrespective of their power at the local level, will not be tolerated.
The young victim was able to return home soon after the programme
Taking a cue from this high-profile event, the villagers led by the elders and other social leaders on 1 April 2018 felicitated the above-mentioned victim in Kailali along with her parents at the premises of her school. The victim, who had been staying at a safe house in Dhangadhi since the harrowing incident, has now returned to her village after nearly a month. She said villagers who had not come to her rescue on that fateful day have now admitted to their mistake and vowed to treat her with respect and care.
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