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Nepal: Witch Tag Only on Dalits, Minorities
Just 40 kms away from the capital Kathmandu, in Thasingtole, Lalitpur District, Kalli Kumari B.K., 46, a local Dalit woman, was mercilessly beaten up. She was accused of being a 'witch', imprisoned in a shed and forced to eat her own excreta
The headmistress of a local school along with a local shaman accused her of practicing witchcraft and tortured her for two days.
"They kept hitting my head and my bruises. They fed human excreta and then they took a blade out and started cutting my skin. I couldn't bear it anymore and was forced to admit that that I am a witch so they would stop giving me so much pain," said B.K. in a public forum here in Kathmandu.
They let her go when she accepted that it was because of her that the village cattle was dying and signed a paper, which said that if any more animals died it was her responsibility.
After being freed, she rushed to the police and filed a complaint at the area police office. For days the administration did nothing. After pressure from local rights group the police finally apprehended the local headmistress.
However, the accused was let off after she paid a fine. Now she has been reinstated at the school and lives in the same village as B.K. "I live in fear, the people who tortured me are still in this village, what if they come at night and take me away again?" said B.K.
In Sunsari, 650 km south-east of Kathmandu, Jabrun Khatun, 26 was dragged out of her house and beaten in the middle of the village. "They said I was a witch, that because of me a lot of children were falling sick and beat me for hours. Then they stepped on my chest and forced me to eat human excreta," said Khatun.
They imprisoned her for days until local children let her out. She was all alone in the family as her husband had recently left to work in neighbouring India. "I have come all the way to Kathmandu looking for justice," said Khatun.
In Kalilali, far west Nepal, Jugu Kumari Chaudhari was accused of practicing witch-craft when a close family member died. Chaudhari was beaten up and her husband had to come rescue her. "We went to the police station to file a complaint but they said it was a personal matter and we should resolve in the community," said Chaudhari.
Gender activists have been fighting for years to end this extreme form of violence against women, but the problem is still common in the Tarai, the southern plains of Nepal, and in areas where there's high illiteracy and poverty.
"An educated woman from higher-income family and higher caste never gets accused of practicing witchcraft," said Indu Pant, gender advisor at CARE Nepal. Urmila Bishwakarma of the Dalit media group Jagaran Media Centre has been documenting cases of Dalit women who have been accused as witches and tortured. She said that Dalit and other minority women are the most vulnerable because they are socially, culturally, financially and politically backward.
Pant says that the problem is exacerbated because the state is often missing in these regions, so the victims have nowhere to go for help. "Even when they try to seek help from the police they are often turned back because the police says it is a personal matter and must be solved in the community. This culture of impunity lets the perpetrators off the hook."
Spokesperson of the Supreme Court Sri Kanta Poudel said that there is a legal vacuum when it comes to punishing those who are involved in such crimes. "There are no provisions of compensation or reintegration of the victims into the society, that is the weakness of our justice system," admits Poudel.
Human rights activists like Kapil Shrestha say that it is our great shame that in this day and age, we are still indulging in beating women up, feeding them human excreta, torturing them until they have no self-confidence, treating them like animals. He adds that by saying we do not have laws to punish those who are involved in the witch-hunt is irresponsible.
"We are a party to CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination on all forms of Discrimination Against Women), which has strict provisions against gender-based violence," said Shrestha adding, "we may not have designed our laws according to the convention but once a country ratifies an international convention we have an obligation to follow their provisions."
Bishwakarma of Jagaran Media Centre says that if the state is really serious about addressing this problem strict laws need to be devised and implemented so that no perpetrator gets away.
"The government announced that Nepal is untouchability free but that is not enough," he said, "Translate the words into actions, make laws, and implement them properly so that this extreme form of violence against women stop."
Bishwakarma said that the state must immediately look into proper ways of rehabilitating those who have been accused and tortured as witches. "It is wrong to expect victims like Kalli B.K. to live in the same community as the perpetrator – isn't it the state's responsibility to make every citizen feel safe, so why is Kalli still scared that those who tortured her are going to come back?"
In the long-run, Bishwakarma said that the state must ensure that there's representation of the hitherto backward community in decision-making levels so that these issues are addressed in policy-making levels as well. Activist Shrestha said massive education programmes need to be launched in the areas where this practice is prevalent.
"This needs to be our curriculum so that children learn early on about superstitions, it must be included in police training manuals, and the organisations need to move out of the urban areas into the field and work with communities. It is about changing the behaviour and mindset of our society and it may take some time and it is definitely not going to be easy," said Shrestha.