Nepal: Gov't, media ignoring plight of displaced women

KATHMANDU, 2 May 2007 (IRIN) - Chandrakala Adhikari was barely 22 years old when she was widowed three years ago after her husband, a teacher, was killed by Maoist rebels in a remote village of Nepal's northwestern Gorkha district.

"His only fault was to refuse to join the Maoists," 25-year old Adhikari told IRIN in the capital, Kathmandu, wiping her tears and holding her two young sons who still have not overcome their fears of the Maoists.

After killing Adhikari's husband as he could not pay the cash they had demanded, the Maoists looted their house and seized their lands, forcing the family to flee the village and become displaced persons living in the capital. Now Adhikari lives in Kathmandu with another widow who was similarly victimised.

"I couldn't bear the pain of seeing her in the street with her two innocent children, so I decided to give her shelter," 36 year-old widow Sabitra Regmi said. They live together with their nine children in a small one-room flat.

Extreme poverty

Living in extreme poverty, the two female internally displaced persons (IDPs) can barely feed themselves. They live in constant fear of Maoists tracing them for sharing their stories with the media.

Both are landless and neglected by their relatives who tell them not to return and that they should forget about reclaiming their property.

"Despite the laws to provide equal property rights, women are unable to exercise this right at the village level," said Adhikari, whose relative also warned her not to return home as she will not get anything of her husband's property. Now she makes a living by selling candles, earning less than US $1 a day.

"They warned that they would use the Maoists to kill me if I dared return," she said with frustration.

But they are not the only female IDPs. The Maoist Victims Association (MVA), a forum for IDPs, has recorded cases of at least 200 widows living as IDPs in the capital alone.

The MVA believes that there are thousands of female IDPs in Kathmandu and other major cities and towns but they are too afraid to identify themselves.

Increasing vulnerability

The issue of female IDPs has barely caught the attention of the government or the national media, said local aid workers who added that female IDPs are more vulnerable and suffer more than their male counterparts.

"In a society where there is already a lot of discrimination against women, the inequalities have been enhanced in the case of female IDPs," Angela Lenn, project manager of Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Nepal, said.

The NRC, which has conducted legal assistance to IDP projects in more than 10 countries, has started a similar project in Nepal.

Lenn said the vulnerability of displaced women had been increasing and the worst cases are those whose husbands either disappeared or were killed during the conflict.

"The challenge becomes even bigger for the female IDPs who end up in very vulnerable situations while in their desperate attempt to search for livelihoods," said Amrita Shrestha from NRC. She recounted how the Nepalese girls and women displaced from their villages have been severely exploited in the cities. They are subject to labour exploitation, sexual harassment and rape, Shrestha said.

"Forced to sell her body"

"She was forced to sell her body for survival," said female IDP legal adviser Sani Laxmi Gassi of a woman who was displaced from her village and forced to work as a commercial sex worker in the capital to provide for herself and her two young children.

The IDP, who requested her identity and place of residence not be revealed due to fears of Maoist reprisals, told IRIN that her husband was hanged by the Maoists, who then abducted her and forced her to work for their army in the forest as a porter.

However, she managed to escape and reached Kathmandu barefoot after three days despite being pregnant at the time.

"We cannot even return to our villages due to the Maoists who warned us not to return," said Sunita Regmi, who has been living in the capital since she was displaced from her remote village in Mugu district, 700km northwest of the capital, following the death of her husband who used to work as a teacher.

Despite former Maoist rebels joining the new interim government and the signing of a peace treaty with the Nepalese government in November 2006, they have still not allowed the safe return of IDPs, say aid workers.

UN stance

On Monday, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (CPNM) has to ensure the unconditional, dignified and safe return of all IDPs.

"OHCHR-Nepal has concluded that in many parts of Nepal, CPN-M local cadres are not complying with the party's formal commitments to allow displaced persons to return in safety and have all their property and land returned," said OHCHR-Nepal chief Lena Sundh.