Police in Kathmandu and Itahari tried to obstruct access to justiceA staggering number of rape cases have been registered with the police in Kathmandu, Chitwan, Jhapa, Sunsari and Khotang. On average, 78 rape charges are registered with the police every month.
A staggering number of rape cases have been registered with the police in Kathmandu, Chitwan, Jhapa, Sunsari and Khotang.
On average, 78 rape charges are registered with the police every month. But recent incidents have shown that the response of the authorities to these incidents of rape is nowhere near proportionate to the gravity and extent of the crime.
Instead of helping victims in their pursuit of justice, police officers have been accused of mediating settlements.
In the light of recent occurrences, Manish Gautam and Supriya Gurung talked to former Superintendent of Kavre, Gita Upreti, who was instrumental in the inception of the Women and Children Service Centres, and who advocated a comprehensive police curriculum that addressed cases of Gender Based Violence (GBV).
The way the police responded to the recent incidents of rape have revealed severe flaws in the authorities’ approach to rape cases. Are these instances representative of the way the police respond to cases of Gender Based Violence (GBV) in Nepal?
How the Nepal Police responded to the two cases of rape that took place in Itahari and Kathmandu was severely flawed from the outset. Their treatment of the victim when she first came to the police station in a bid to press charges against the perpetrators was faulty because the police were trying to broker a settlement between the victim and her perpetrators. Their actions indicate that they were trying to obstruct the access to justice that the victim is entitled to. However, it would be wrong to say that these instances are representative of the way the police respond to all such cases related to GBV. There are police officers who have been active in the delivery of justice and who have followed a set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) as defined by the Nepal Police.
What mechanisms do the Nepal police have in place when it comes to dealing with cases related to GBV?
In 1996, the Nepal police established the first Women and Children Service Centres (WCSC) in select areas. They were established so vulnerable women and children could have access to justice. Now, there are actively operating WCSCs in 75 districts across the nation. These WCSCs are the main mechanism that the police has in place to deal with cases related to GBV. Those posted in the WCSCs are given training in regards to how victims of sexual offence, trafficking, and domestic violence have to be treated. They question victims and investigate allegations without prejudice and via proper procedures. They also document the case and coordinate with concerned stakeholders.
Other than the WCSCs, the Nepal Police also has a set of SOPs when dealing with cases of female and child victims of GBV. The investigating officer has to understand the procedural requirements when it comes to examining and documenting a case related to GBV. There are different steps that have to be followed during investigations. First, the officer has to take the victim’s initial statement. This has to be done in a clinical manner, without letting emotions come in to play. Following this, the victim is questioned further, and in more detail in a conducive environment. In order to better equip police officers with the ability to conduct thorough interviews with trauma victims, they are given basic training skills on crisis counselling.
Once the victims have been thoroughly questioned, the investigating officer must make sure that they are safe. They must also make sure that the evidence collected is not compromised. The problem is that not all police units follow the SOPs, and they also neglect to refer the victims to WCSCs that could better assist them.
Given that such mechanisms exist, why do police units still decide to take matters into their own hands and mediate informal settlements instead?
By following the SOPs, a number of problems could be alleviated when it comes to the failure of the police in dealing with cases related to GBV and giving victims access to justice. But police units neglect to follow the procedures and try to mediate informal settlements between the victims and the perpetrators because, like a majority of members of Nepali society, police officers too hold the overarching view that the moral burden following the crime will be put on the victim, and that it is her image that will be soiled in society. Once rape charges are filed, the case goes public. And unfortunately, in our society, victims of rape are perceived as fallen women who are disgraced and can no longer be good wives or mothers—a mark of social standing in Nepal. Settling out of court would avoid such censure.
Another reason why police officers try to mediate informal settlements is because they believe that the victim is to blame to some extent. They infer that perhaps she was ‘asking for it’. Take the case of the 14-year old girl who was raped by her alleged boyfriend and his friend at a resort in Itahari for example. In all likelihood, the girl probably had no idea that her alleged boyfriend was seeking to establish sexual relations. But the fact that she went to the resort of her own volition gives people space to say that she knew what was going to happen, and that she was ‘asking for it’. And unfortunately, this is the way that Nepali society, and some police units, perceive such instances.
Surely this societal perception deters victims from reporting cases of rape and seeking justice?
Societal perception is the main reason why victims and those close to them decide not to file charges. In Nepal, a female is judged by her marriageability. Once a victim of rape, she will be viewed as soiled and impure and her social standing, as well as that of her family, will go down the drain. She will no longer be of marriage material. It is to avoid this from happening that victims choose not to file charges and pursue justice.
This is not the only thing that deters victims from seeking justice. Another major deterrent is the fact that the entire procedure to obtain justice is extremely lengthy. The police have to follow a set procedure for investigation. By the time the victims finally get to deliver their testimony in the court of law, almost a year will have passed since the crime occurred.
Another major reason why people choose not to file charges is because they are required to give their statements a number of times and answer an exhaustive list of questions. People say that victims are raped over and over again, because they have to relive the memory of the incident so many times. I have seen cases involving minors, where parents choose not to level charges and testify because they would rather have their child forget than revisit the memory time and again over the period of a year.
These are the main reasons why victims choose not to file their case. And because victims choose not to seek justice, the perpetrator goes free, fuelling the perception that rape is not a crime and that it has no consequences. This could be directly correlated to the rise in rape cases.
The fact that so many victims choose not to file charges suggests that our system is deeply flawed.
Nepal’s laws are extremely progressive, but laws alone are not enough to fuel change. When it comes to the implementation of the laws in place, there are severe issues that need to be addressed. Rules, regulations and guidelines have been set, but the problem is that they are not being followed.
While I was serving as the Superintendent of Police (SP) in the district of Kavre, I encountered a situation of GBV where the paralegals who were involved in the case were encouraging the victim to settle out of court. Upon meeting with them and questioning them, it came to light that the paralegals were unaware that they were breaking the law by mediating a settlement. This lack of knowledge about the appropriate steps to follow, and the rules and regulations that are in place to ensure the delivery of justice is representative of the country-wide situation.
We have a lot of legislation in place, but we have to make sure that they are implemented.
Does the new federal structure bode well for the implementation of these laws in the future?
I have grave doubts that these laws will be implemented fully under the new federal structure. Under the central government, laws were being followed, albeit to a minimal degree. But now, I fear that they will be followed to an even lesser extent. Now, the cases have to go through the WCSC, the police, the municipal councils, and will finally be settled by the district court. But the effectiveness of these governing bodies is uncertain. Particularly considering the fact that, in this phase of transition, the functionality and jurisdiction of these bodies is still undecided.
The state is politicised in every sense of the word, and it is doubtful that these bodies will afford priority to the delivery of justice for women and children. Women and children are always the most vulnerable. I fear that while Nepal is realising its new federal structure, the women and children could be forgotten.