National Women Commission remains defunct as the cases of violence against women continuesSince it was elevated to a constitutional body in the new constitution, it has not had full quota of commissioners and since 2017 there has been no office bearers.
Last week, people of Barbibas Municipality in Mahottari district protested for three days after the body of six-year-old Gulabasa Khatun was found stuffed inside a sack on Monday, a day after she went missing.
A 40-year-old man protesting government inaction in the case lost his life in police firing while two others sustained injuries.
Her relatives and local residents claim that she had been raped.
On September 23, a 12-year-old girl from Masta Rural Municipality in Bajhang was murdered after being raped. On September 15, a teenage rape victim took her own life in Saptari district after village elders forced her into an out-of-court settlement.
Nepal Police records show that 2,144 cases of rape and 687 cases of attempted rape were reported in the fiscal year 2019-20, an increase from 1,480 cases of rape and 727 cases of attempted rape reported in the previous fiscal year.
Rewind to September 2009. Suntali Dhami, a constable was raped by six policemen in Achham.
“It was the National Women Commission’s efforts that provided justice to Suntali Dhami,” said Mohna Ansari, then a member of the commission.
But for the past five years, since the commission became a constitutional body, it has not had the full quota of five office bearers and none since 2017.
But with no office bearers despite its legal elevation, the commission is as if non-existent.
“The lack of chairperson and members has paralysed the commission,” Meera Sherchan, spokesperson for the commission, told the Post. “We have been unable to recommend actions in criminal cases for years now.”
Currently, the commission is largely limited to administrative works.
The commission was constituted in 2002 to deal with cases of gender-based violence and provide justice to victims. It was elevated to a constitutional body by the constitution.
As per Article 253 of the constitution, the commission has an authority to formulate policies and programmes concerning the rights and interests of women, monitoring laws concerning rights and interests of women and whether obligations under international treaties to which Nepal is a party have been implemented.
It also has a mandate to make suggestions, accompanied by measures for their effective compliance and implementation to the government. Similarly, it can also recommend the government ways to ensure women are included in mainstream national development while having proportional representation in all organs of the state.
The commission, however, has been without a chair for the past four years, ever since the tenure of Chand Tara Kumari ended in November 2015.
Bhagwati Ghimire, a former member, had served as an acting chair until she too retired in October 2017. No members have been appointed since.
“It seems appointments have been delayed deliberately to weaken it,” said Ansari, who after serving at the National Women Commission was also a former member of National Human Rights Commission “Constitutional bodies under the leadership of the civil servants cannot hold government entities accountable though that is their primary responsibility.”
In the past, the commission had been active against formulation of discriminatory laws against women. One such example is in the Anti-Witchcraft Act 2015.
Prior to the promulgation of the Act, the now defunct Muluki Ain had a provision for a fine between Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000 for those accused of torturing women for practicing witchcraft.
That was hardly a deterrent and the practice was rampant across the country. This prompted the National Women Commission to lobby for a separate law with harsher punishments.
“The commission itself formulated an Anti-Witchcraft Bill in 2012,” said Ansari, “The government later owned it and it was endorsed by Parliament in 2015.”
The Act has provisions for a jail term of up to three years along with a fine of Rs30,000 for anyone found guilty of being involved in torturing women accusing them practising witchcraft.
Ansari claims that such cases of torture have somewhat decreased after the Act was promulgated.
The rape cases of Mahottari, Baitadi and Saptari are cases the commission would have looked into.
“We could have investigated the latest case in Bardibas and recommended necessary actions if we had a full quota of office-bearers at the commission,” Sherchan said.
Women rights activists say successive governments and political parties have shown indifference towards appointing office-bearers in the commission because the crime against women and girls doesn’t affect them.
“Our leaders don’t think beyond the politics,” Kumari, the former chair of the commission, who also is currently a Nepal Communist Party lawmaker, told the Post. “Their indifference is weakening the constitutional commission.”
Following pressure from the cross-party lawmakers the Cabinet on Sunday issued an ordinance increasing the penalty in the cases of rape and sexual violence. Experts, however, say the ordinance was brought just to address the concerns of the lawmakers rather than actually being empathetic towards the plight of the victims.
They are especially riled by the provision that any person, whether a man or woman, can now be considered to have been raped after the ordinance replaced the clause “woman or girl child” in Clause 221 of the Criminal Code 2017 by “person” .
“The government hasn’t stopped promulgating discriminatory laws,” said Meera Dhungana, president of Forum for Women, Law and Development, a non-government organisation advocating for the rights of the women.
“The ordinance the government endorsed recently has changed the definition of rape which is condemnable,” she told the Post.“If there was a women’s commission, it would have objected to the law.”