Legislating Against Witchcraft Accusations in Nepal
August 8, 2012
In Nepal’s Chitwan District, a 40-year-old widow and mother of two was burnt alive by her family on Feb. 18, 2012. A local shaman and her family members had accused her of using witchcraft to make another family member sick.
A month later in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, another widow was brutally beaten and blinded in both eyes by her siblings for allegedly practicing witchcraft.
Sadly, these acts are not simply those of a few misguided or superstitious individuals; they are part of a troubling trend of increasing gender-based violence in Nepal. Last year, the local NGO Women’s Rehabilitation Center (WOREC) logged 103 cases of violence against women sparked by accusations of witchcraft.
Women in Nepal have long faced inequality and discrimination, and equal access to resources and power has been elusive. An estimated 81 percent of women face recurring domestic violence, 50 to75 percent of which goes unreported. Of the reported cases, 70 percent implicate a family member. Furthermore, 43 percent of women experience sexual harassment in the workplace, and between 7,000 and 15,000 girls aged 10-20 years of age are trafficked every year. Nepal also suffers from an extremely high child marriage rate: 51.4 percent of girls are married before 18. Nepal is ranked 112th out of 155 countries on the UNDP’s Gender-Related Development Index.
Widows in particular bear the brunt of discrimination and, according to the local NGO Women for Human Rights (WHR), are one of the most marginalized groups in Nepal. In many cases, they are blamed for the deaths of their husbands and barred from attending public ceremonies and events. Due to this low status, widows are highly vulnerable to opportunistic manipulation by society, such as witchcraft accusations. In many cases, utilizing accusations of witchcraft enables families to commit atrocious abuses, including humiliation, sexual assault, torture, and even death, justifying their actions in the name of protection from evil. Families bickering over land and other assets often reportedly take advantage of the vulnerability of widows. In order to reap financial gain, relatives will seek to portray widows as sinister individuals, women who need to be feared because they are witches. Investigation by the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers’ Gender Empowerment Coordination Unit (GECU) found that in both the cases cited at the beginning of this piece, the widows had claimed their husbands’ property, which their families had routinely denied them over several years. They found that the families had exploited the women’s’ vulnerability as widows, claiming they were “witches” in order to deny them their rightful share of family assets.
Although there are some NGOs that provide relief in such cases, access to the affected women is often limited and in many cases dependent on the consent of their families and perpetrators. Social stigma and the lack of legal protection prevent timely access to relief and justice.
The Government of Nepal, specifically GECU, has been involved in combating this particular manifestation of societal violence in collaboration with relevant ministries and the National Women’s Commission (NWC) to push for new legislation against accusations of witchcraft.
The proposed bill against witchcraft accusations would provide legal recourse for women who have experienced physical or mental harm as a consequence of witchcraft accusations and related cultural and superstitious practices by proposing jail terms of up to seven years and fines up to Nepali Rupees 70,000 (US$780). If a death occurs because of such an offence, then homicide-related laws stipulated in Nepal’s existing criminal code would be invoked. The bill also contains provisions that ensure interim relief and protection measures to the victims while legal proceedings take their course.
The bill has a clear focus on victim protection mechanisms and guarantees state protection for the victim. Other features of the bill include third-party complaint mechanisms and an ordinance for ranking police officers to investigate complaints.
Unfortunately, like many other pending legislations, the bill against witchcraft accusations has become a casualty of contemporary politics. Soon after being tabled in Nepal’s Legislative & Constituent Assembly for approval, the Assembly’s own term expired: the Assembly failed to promulgate the constitution by the May 27 deadline, the legislative body was dissolved with no clear plan as to how to move forward.
Although the ongoing political instability in Nepal has negatively impacted the adoption of important legislation and there are many distractions from the development of a long-term plan to decrease gender-based vulnerabilities, some progress is still possible through coordination of governmental action in the absence of an overarching law that specifically targets witchcraft. In the two cases outlined above, for example, the GECU, NWC, and Ministry of Women, Children, and Social Welfare swiftly mobilized to provide compensation to the victims and their children, and the perpetrators were identified, tried, and are currently serving jail time. These actions were taken at the central level of government using various legal and regulatory means that don’t directly relate to accusations of witchcraft and related violence directed at widows. Such actions can therefore be expected to be more the exception than the norm, especially in rural areas where the writ of central government may not prevail. In the absence of a dedicated witchcraft bill that removes any ambiguity regarding punishment of perpetrators and provides victims with concrete legal backing for protection and justice, closer coordination and information flows are essential between state and non-state agencies in continuing to combat this heinous practice.
Protection from gender-based violence in Nepal cannot be contingent on the state of politics in Nepal.
Diana Fernandez is The Asia Foundation’s program officer and Kirti Thapa is the Foundation’s policy officer for the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers (OPMCM), both in the Nepal office. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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