By Susan Risal
(Printed in Himalayan Times on June 25, 2019)
In Nepal, the failure of the state and political parties to provide the peace dividend to the people who suffered during the armed conflict, especially to women who faced sexual violence, has played a vital role in increasing the frustration among these women as well as lowering their self-esteem. In this scenario, these women continue to wait for a conducive environment and holistic justice where their basic rights (physical, economic and psychological) will be fulfilled.
Jelke Boesten, a researcher on violence against women, argues that transitional justice does not only refer to the process of political change and re-establishment of the rule of law, but also refers to inventions that help societies to reconcile themselves with the violent past to establish the ‘truth’ about human rights violation that allows for a peaceful future. On paper and in verbal terms, the government institution and so-called truth-seeking commissions tried to convince the general public, and especially the conflict victim communities, that the aim of the current transitional justice in Nepal is similar to the argument Boesten has put forward. But it has not been able to achieve this aim so far. Nor have any steps been taken to respond to the violent past in any form to provide some form of justice to the women who faced sexual violence at the time of conflict in Nepal.
Due to lack of a conducive environment and existing gender norms, women who faced sexual violence are still compelled to experience gender inequality and gender hierarchy in their daily lives in this so-called peace time. It is necessary to analyse how political violence affects women differently from men in order to include women’s experiences in the construction of the national narrative of conflict and reconciliation. However, due to the gap in analysing the effects on women — especially of women who faced sexual violence — and responding to their immediate and long-term needs by the current transitional justice mechanisms as well as other government institutions, women are still facing huge stigmatisation. They are having to deal with multiple physical and psycho-social problems, transferring the notion of victimhood to their children. They have not been able to reconcile themselves due to lack of space to tell their experiences of injustice they faced and not been able to get social, psychological and legal remedy so far.
Without addressing the real grievances of the women, which were cashed at the time of the war, efforts at reconciliation at the individual and community level will not succeed as it is a crucial factor for sustainable peace building. In many instances, when I talked with the male stakeholders, from the communities to the government institutions, regarding the issues of women who faced sexual violence during the conflict, it was revealed that women’s problems were still considered as women’s issues only, which have to be addressed by women themselves. This shows the gap in understanding of gender justice by the male members of the society.
Moreover, the perception of the commissions and government institutions towards justice is limited to monetary and legal justice only. It has to go beyond these limited concepts as there is a need to put an effort to repair the pains of the harm and injuries that women have experienced, not only physically but socially as well as psychologically. It has been also observed that the notion of denialism against sexual violence occurred during the time of the conflict from the political parties, local structures and government institutions, which is again contributing in further marginalising the victims’ experiences, adding a further layer of insult and injustice to the surviving victims of war-time rapes.
Although international humanitarian law and criminal law define sexual violence conducted in war time as crime against humanity and a war crime, there is no such definition found in Nepal’s domestic law as well as in the current TRC bill.
On June 19, the world marked the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. The theme focused on the survivor-centred approach to counter, prevent and alleviate conflict-related violence in the conflict and post-conflict situation. But Nepali women who faced sexual violence during 10 years of the armed conflict are still living in self-blame and shame and dying everyday for lack of support of medical and psychological treatment. They face problems in carrying on with their lives due to the economic barriers and are facing injustices. This scenario also exemplifies that these women are excluded from any kind of justice system in Nepal.
The issues of women who faced sexual violence might be very similar to other international contexts as well. It is necessary to see women’s issues from the gender lens, from a larger audience, from national and international stakeholders, to understand the women’s perspective of justice and dignity to play a vital role in shifting the social and cultural norms which suppress women. If the voices of women who faced sexual violence during the armed conflict, their dignity, justice and needs are not addressed, women will be compelled to experience injustice in their everyday lives, which is the source of gender hierarchy and inequality. This can destabilise peace in society.