What was left behindIn the first few months at my all-women’s college, I attended a meeting on how to stay safe from sexual assaults, rape, and unwanted bodily interference. The moderator asked how many in the audience had been victims. I was shocked at how many hands flew up to admit publicly that they had experienced sexual assault, in many cases by people they knew.
In the first few months at my all-women’s college, I attended a meeting on how to stay safe from sexual assaults, rape, and unwanted bodily interference. The moderator asked how many in the audience had been victims. I was shocked at how many hands flew up to admit publicly that they had experienced sexual assault, in many cases by people they knew.
Since then, I have repeatedly encountered people who have experienced such horrors in my work documenting human rights violations. It has come up again and again, including sexual violence during conflict, whether in the former Yugoslavia, in Nepal and Sri Lanka, or most recently in refugee camps for the Rohingya.
Indeed, in the global #MeToo movement, we find that many people everywhere have endured disrespect and sexual abuse. It had almost become normalised. But some cases can shake people to their core. One is the case of Nirmala Panta, a 13-year old girl who was raped and murdered in July. After her brutalised body was found, protests broke out in several parts of Nepal. Not only should Nirmala get justice, but her case should spur reforms to Nepal’s criminal justice system.
The case should be the beginning to put an end to institutional barriers and stigma that victims encounter when they try to report and seek justice for sexual assault. It should lead the government to provide protection for vulnerable people and needed services for victims of sexual assault. And it should strengthen laws to deal with sexual predators.
People are not just angry about the rape of a child, but about the responses from the authorities. Investigations into Nirmala’s rape and murder have been repeatedly bungled. The police officers initially assigned to the case were accused of mishandling the evidence and of cover ups.
The government has set up a commission to investigate police misconduct in general. But while the officers have since been assigned to other police stations, there has been no investigation into the specific allegations of misconduct. Meanwhile, the suspects in the case remain at large.
After the public outcry over Nirmala’s rape and death, both the president and the prime minister met with her parents, Durga Devi and Yagya Raj. They travelled 35 hours by bus to Kathmandu to seek justice for their child.Yagya Raj, speaking to the news media, said the police response was cold and uncaring: “The police didn’t even let us shed tears when we came to know about our daughter’s death.”
There are many other rape victims/survivors in Nepal. Sexual assaults, at least those that are reported, occur at least three times a day countrywide. Most of the reported victims are children.In 2014, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting over 50 cases of rape and sexual abuse during Nepal’s decade long civil war. Even as the authorities come together to block proper punishment for those responsible for wartime abuses, these women and girls are still awaiting redress. Many of them, all these years later, still experience symptoms of trauma.
Protests broke out in 2012 following the rape of Sita, by police officers who had offered her protection when she returned back to Nepal after working abroad. They were tried, convicted and sentenced, but given nominal prison terms. It is a signal to potential rapists that they can get away with such a heinous crime. Till date, Sita and her parents continue to struggle for meaningful justice.
Nirmala’s painful, heart-breaking end should spur the government to start setting things right. Not only should she get justice, but it should mark the beginning of reforms that would allow sexual assault victims to seek and get justice without being further victimised by the criminal justice system. Nirmala’s legacy should be an end to the violence and the lack of justice that has persisted since I was in college, naively stunned by how many are people are abused, and how often this happens in our society.
Thapa is a senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.