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NEPAL: Witchcraft as a Superstition and a form of violence against women in Nepal

Contributors: Sujata Paudel

An article by Sujata Paudel published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

Sujata Paudel

Famous Nepali saying states that "the heaven exist there where the women are respected". This saying underlines the strength of women. The woman is also considered the first teacher in any family who can guide her children and family in the best way. It is the woman who, despite of the many up and downs in her life, plays the key role as daughter, mother, sister and wife and shapes the family, society, country as well as the whole world. In Hindu mythology, many women goddesses also brought esteem for women. In these ancient times the women were independent and fully enjoyed their rights. Great women left their mark and influenced the course of history such as Gautami and Gargi1 who will never be forgotten. But after the starting of Medieval Epoch (from when the Hindu religion was initiated in the society), the women who were regarded as intellectual, an energy source and caretaker of the whole society were relegated to the second place and all their rights were minimized. The society had not yet established any social, economic, educational, gender norm to control and diminish women's rights.

Different boundaries were established in the society in the name of cultures and tradition due to which women were regarded as inferior to man and were confined to the household as caretakers of their children and other family members and along with this their rights were also diminished in the name of family reputation and devotion. Thus this belief gave rise to the male dominated society and this patriarchal belief led the women to a most vulnerable situation.

The women who were worshipped as the incarnation of goddess in the ancient eras are now facing different sorts of violence. Violence occurred in their life in different ways such as social, political, economic, sexual violence and so on. Each and every day the media reports stories of violence against women in our society. This violence manifests itself in different forms such as abuse, rapes, sexual harassment in the work place, domestic violence (marital rapes, physical and mental tortures), trafficking of girls or women for sexual and labor exploitation .etc. Forms of violence against the women are the outcome of discrimination due to patriarchal attitudes and deep-rooted stereotype such as the determination of harmful traditional practices such as witchcrafts, early marriage, dowry system, polygamy, Chaupadi, Jhuma, Deuki ,Dhan khane, Ghumto pratha etc.

The situation of women indicted with witchcraft
A lot of Nepalese women fall victim to accusations of witchcraft and are tortured despite the fact that the accusations are based on superstition. Belief in witchcrafts has prevailed in the underdeveloped and developing countries since ancient times and it is always women who are considered as the practitioner with supernatural powers (i.e. the negative energy that can hepatize the man, animals and other living things and responsible for making them ill or even killing them). It is the result of religious practices and the mentality of the society that it is the women who are always accused. Despite the arrival of the 21st century, the community views towards women has not changed yet and still they are vulnerable to being accused of practicing witchcraft and being tortured by members of their own community. Mostly widows and the elderly with low economic status, especially those who belonged to so called lower caste of Dalits and other marginalized communities are accused of witchcraft. Some people in the Nepalese society continue to believe that the magical powers of these women are responsible for the infirmity of the people.

Women accused of witchcraft are severely traumatized and suffer physical and mental torture. They suffer greatly through being ostracized from the society, battered, fed human excreta, hit with hot spoons in different parts of the body, forced to touch red hot irons, forced to breathe in chili smoke, especially by Jhankris (the witch-doctors), perforated in private organs, offended publicly and it is therefore not surprising that they confess. The deep traumatic impact of such experience cannot only be seen in the lives of the women who are accused of being witches but also felt by their families who pay for that. Often, all the family members are tortured or they are compelled to leave their homes as well as the areas in which they have been residing for many years. The victims lose their self respect in their family and society as well. Some of them are even rejected by their family and their lives become more complex day by day as they are reluctant to return to their own village since the violence they endured is still fresh in their memory with mental and physical disorders. Even if they returned to their society, the insult and torture that they faced will never let them return to normalcy and some of them even commit suicide as it is difficult for them to return to their family and society with the possibility of such an immense accusation being laid yet again.

This is the time when we are raising our voices to call for the protection of women's rights from their homes to the political sphere. Nevertheless, progress in this direction is slow and limited and humanity is slaughtered each time a woman is accused of witchcraft. Women are repeatedly falling prey to this superstition, which to this day resides in the minds of the community level people, no matter whether they are illiterate or are so called erudite.

Kalli Kumari B.K. of Pyutar-07, Thangsingtole, Lalitpur Nepal who belonged to so called lower caste Dalit community was assaulted, publically humiliated, mercilessly beaten and forced to confess that she practiced witchcraft and compelled her to eat her own excreta by Ms. Bimala Lama who was the Headmistress of the Gadhibhanjyang Primary School of same VDC on 20 March, 2009. According to the victim she accepted the accusation when the perpetrators, along with her sisters, threatened to cut off her breasts. She was made to agree that the animals died in the village because she practiced witchcraft on them and she was also compelled to sign an agreement taking responsibility for any animals that might die in the coming days. Her husband, Chet Bahadur B.K., and her child, were threatened with death if they supported Kalli and raised their voices against them. After the incident a Dalit Right Based NGO including the different organizations and media, and went to the village on March 25 with representatives from the National Dalit Commission, National Women's Commission, human rights organizations, journalists and a Dalit Constitutional Assembly member .The team, after seeing the hostile environment, rescued Kalli Kumari BK, husband Chet Bahadur, and her 17-year-old daughter. The villagers tried to attack the team using stones and sticks however, the victim and her daughter were rescued and given shelter provided by Maiti Nepal, Kathmandu while her husband has been taking refuge at Chapagaon. Similarly the testimony of the victim was passed out from different news papers and medias along with press conference was also organized at the National Women's Commission where Mrs. BK gave the details of the trauma she faced. At the same meeting the working committee was also formed to pressurize the authorities for prompt action and the committee too passed a delegation to the Chief District Office (CDO) in Lalitpur on March 29, 2009 to pressure the local government to arrest the culprits, and provide compensation and assistance in protection and resettling the victim's family. The Chief District Officer (CDO) and Superintendent of the Police (SP) of Lalitpur District claim that they were searching for the culprits, but their efforts to arrest the accused were being foiled by the protesting villagers, and therefore the arrests were delayed. The victim along with her family returned their home after 52 days when they were assured to be safe and received Rs 40,000 as compensation. As the police arrested two of the locals involved in the incident while the main perpetrator Bimala was absconding and arrested after a few days. Now the case's prosecution is on the process and still the victim is deprived of justice due to lack of appropriate bill on accusing women as witches.2

In 2011, reports of cases of women being beaten after having been accused of witchcraft were numerous. 41-year-old Gauri Devi Saha of Bara was severely beaten and forced to eat human waste by her neighbors who accused her of having practiced witchcraft on May 5, 2011 and similarly a week after this case another case was also recorded where 61-year-old Man Maya Angbohang, of Taplejung who was an unmarried woman and had been living alone was beaten black and blue by a group of local youths at her residence after accusations of being a witch. She sustained serious injuries during the attack.3

Recently on 23rd November, 2011 at around 11.30 pm, Samkhu Devi Urawa of Bhokhra-3, Sunsari was attacked with a sharp weapon (Khukuri) on her neck by her own brother in law, Dukhan Lal Urawa who was also working as police officer in Kanchanjunga, Taplejung accusing her of witchcraft and responsible for the death of his mother, Laliya Devi Urawa and brother Dhurpa Urawa, who died two years ago. According to the Raju Manandhar Deputy Sub Inspector of Police, Sunsari the perpetrator was taken into custody on 21st November and he had confessed that he tried to murder of his sister in law. He accused her of witchcraft and the legal process is also going on including the medical treatment of victim.4

These are the few of the cases in Nepal which exemplifies the accusations of practicing witchcraft where women have to live with dreadful conditions and even pay with their lives. They are not receiving justice. It is not only due to lack of awareness of the people who lay charges against innocent women but in the cases mentioned above we can see some of the so called educated persons who are specially working for society's welfare are the main perpetrators. Thus this system can be considered as the result of some of the evil traditional belief which passes on from generations to generations.

It is especially difficult to remove this superstition as it has been accepted by the people for generations and is passed down from generation to generation even today. As the most of the cases of witchcrafts are considered as cases of social matters by the people in the community so the perpetrators attempt to settle the cases within the community with some amount of compensation outside the formal legal process. It is only when the cases is considered as assault and attempt to murder that it comes for the appeal of Justice.

Violence against women has been declared an illegal act and punishable by law in Nepal. Although the country has passed out laws and different provisions for women along with this according to the Country's Interim Constitution, Part 3 ‘Fundamental Right', Article 20 ‘Rights of Women' explains that “no one shall be discriminated in any form merely for being a woman and no physical, mental or any other form of violence shall be inflicted to any woman, and such an act shall be punishable by law". Nevertheless, there is still no law specifically criminalizing attacks on women accused of witchcraft.

The ratification of CEDAW by the country mandates the state to bring cases violence against women to an end and to suppress the stereotypes and harmful traditional practices which trigger such violence. In the 2004 review of Nepal, CEDAW urged the government to take steps to abolish those harmful and discriminatory traditional practices concerns. Similarly the 49th session of CEDAW held on 29 July 20115 had followed up that recommendation and issued the same areas of concern and recommendations, asking the state to take further action to eradicate harmful traditional practices, specifically quoting accusations of witchcraft as such harmful practices. The reiteration of CEDAW observation shows that the State action has been insufficient in that aspect.

In particular, no law has been adopted to criminalize specifically the act of accusing women of witchcraft. A bill against such practices is under discussion in the Parliament, but it remains to be seen whether its dispositions are protecting enough of the victims' access to justice. Prosecutions of assaults against women accused of witchcraft remain ongoing and in the cases which are observed up to now, the women have had a very limited access to justice. As a result, victims will not seek justice, thinking they will never receive it.

Conclusion

The society's attitude to women has evolved a lot in comparison with ancient times. Women are little by little becoming more visible in different sectors of the society. But cases of violence against women persist and illustrate how the strict hierarchical society continues to control and impact their lives. This brings out the most controversial position of women in the society.

Women victimized as witches cannot receive access to justice nor recover the respect that she once had. Even in the rare cases that victims can get justice or in which the perpetrators confess and grant the victim some compensation, the victim's self dignity is never fully repaired. It is hard for her to reintegrate into her community as she suffers from mental pain over and over again. She can never come out from such a dreadful condition where she was ill treated, battered, fed human excreta, tortured with hot spoons in different parts of the body, perforated in her private organs and offended publicly.

Although most of the civil society and the local and central authorities are conscious about the situation, not much has been done from the side of the State to overcome that situation. Some argue that the state is pretending to be asleep, as per the saying "it is more difficult to awaken the people pretending to be asleep than to wake up the real sleeper".

Nepal has pledged to uphold women's rights through the ratification of international conventions, including CEDAW. Nevertheless, those pledges have not been made reality yet and most of the commitments contained in the ratification have not been implemented. It is the first and foremost responsibility of the nation to establish such a law which would never let any person to accuse the women on such a way where she is not only tortured in the name of tradition but also loses her dignity. In addition to this the awareness raising and educational efforts targeted all the people with the involvement of civil society as well as community and religious leaders should be fortified from the State's side and it also must be dutiful for passing the comprehensive strategy and the draft law about social harmful practices; should promptly enact on the law ensuring the full implementation of the drafted law without any delay where complete monitoring must be considered the most.

In addition the women who are accused with such a humiliating treatment should be brought back to the society where they should not face the problem of frustration in which all the civil societies, stakeholders, leaders, activists and journalist can play the key role by forwarding the message of positive thinking in the people of the society and develop society with impartiality.

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Footnotes:

1 Mahaprajapati Gautami Theri – Princess, Queen, Saint, & Sage, http://www.rinpoche.com/stories/mahagotami.htm and Subhamoy Das, Four Famous Female Figures of Vedic India About Ghosha, Lopamudra, Maitreyi and Gargi, http://hinduism.about.com/od/history/a/ghosha_lopamudra_maitreyi_gargi.htm
2 AHRC, NEPAL: Dalit woman assaulted, publicly humiliated and forced to eat human excreta , Asian Human Rights Commission - Urgent Appeals Programme , April 6, 2009 http://www.humanrights.asia/news/urgent-appeals/AHRC-UAC-038-2009
3 PEACEWOMEN.org ,Witchcrafts cases in Nepal, http://www.peacewomen.org/news_article.php?id=3531&type=news
4 EKANTIPUR,NEPAL, Brother-in -law attempt of murder accusing witch ,November 27, http://www.ekantipur.com/kantipur/news/news-detail.php?news_id=257413
5 UN WOMEN, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 2011 http://cedaw-seasia.org/docs/general/20110328_CEDAW_texconv.pdf

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The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.

About the Author:
Sujata Paudel is the Palpa District President of the Feminist Dalit Organisation (FEDO), Nepal. She works for the defence of the rights of women from the Dalit community. For more information, visit www.fedonepal.org; she is currently completing an internship with the Asian Human Rights Commission.

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