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Long road ahead for #MeToo in Nepal

Rape, murder of teenager provoke unprecedented protests

In this file photo, women shout slogans during an International Women’s Day rally in Kathmandu. The rape and murder of a teenager provoked unprecedented protests in conservative Nepal, but activists say a #MeToo reckoning like that unfolding in neighboring India remains a distant prospect. —AFP

KATHMANDU: The rape and murder of a teenager provoked unprecedented protests in conservative Nepal, but activists say a #MeToo reckoning like that unfolding in neighboring India remains a distant prospect. Thousands poured onto the streets after 13-year-old Nirmala Pant’s body was discovered in July angered by allegations the police were protecting the perpetrators.

Two hashtags – #RageAgainstRape and #JusticeForNirmala – have become the rallying cries for protesters fed up with Nepal’s woeful record of prosecuting cases of violence against women. But #MeToo has been largely absent from the ongoing debate. Those fighting for change say women still struggle to speak out against their abusers in Nepal. “I would love a society where you can say #MeToo,” said women’s rights activist Hima Bista. In recent weeks the #MeToo movement in neighboring India has gathered pace, a year after the hashtag first went viral.

The public allegations by Bollywood star Tanushree Dutta against a fellow actor emboldened a wave of women in India to tell their own stories. A government minister, MJ Akbar, resigned this month after at least 20 women accused him of sexual harassment. A prominent Bollywood director was also sacked over similar allegations. The shockwaves have not gone unnoticed in Nepal, which shares strong cultural and religious ties with its influential neighbor, as well as a 1,850-kilometre open border. “You see a slight breeze come through,” Bista said of the ripple effect from India.

In the last two weeks, a handful of women have gone public with #MeToo stories in Nepal, including two accusing the former mayor of Kathmandu, Keshav Sthapit, of abusing his power. “Nepal also has serial predators who have been misusing their powers and positions,” wrote Rashmila Prajapati, who says she lost her job in Sthapit’s office 15 years ago after she rejected his sexual advances. “(It) is high time to reveal them.” Sthapit has denied the allegations, describing them as “a rape of men’s rights” in an recent interview with the Kathmandu Post newspaper.

‘Fight for justice’
But for most women in Nepal, particularly those in conservative rural communities, speaking out is not an option, says Mohna Ansari of the National Human Rights Commission. She is supporting two rape victims who brought their cases to court – a rare achievement in itself. But the women have been driven from their communities by gossip, a byproduct of speaking out about sexual violence. “They are now both hiding in a shelter.

The stigma and victim blaming is still too strong in our society,” said Ansari. Bista is concerned that Nepal may not be ready for #MeToo, pointing out that so far only professional women in Kathmandu have felt able to speak out. “And the reaction has been very divided for and against (them),” she added. A change needs to come from the top, but the government’s response to Pant’s killing, the botched investigation and the ensuing protests has invoked outrage and derision.

Parliament passed a ban on pornography saying it would curb violence against women, while the home minister blamed rape on capitalism. He also described the #RageAgainstRape protest movement as a conspiracy aimed at toppling Nepal’s communist-led government. There have been small signs of progress: official figures show 479 complaints of rape and attempted rape were made from July to September this year – more than the total number of cases filed between 2008 and 2009 – suggesting the protests have encouraged some to speak up. In 2016 to 2017, 1,131 rapes were reported to the police, but only a tiny fraction ended up in court.

Sexual violence is making news too. An acid attack on two sisters by a jilted suitor in late September, and the gang rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl, dominated headlines for days. But activists say the sensationalist coverage and gratuitous detail paints women as weak victims with no agency — undermining their ability to call out their abusers. “Once we address the culture, then you have space for #MeToo,” said Bista. Pant’s killers meanwhile remain at large. “I don’t have any hope of justice, because the investigations have come up with nothing despite public pressure,” her father, Yagya Raj Pant, told AFP by phone. “But we still continue our fight for justice.” _ AFP

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