Occupy Baluwatar 2.0

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In year 2012, a 19-year-old migrant Dalit worker, Sita Rai (name changed) was returning to Nepal on a fake passport from Saudi Arabia. She was arrested at the Tribhuvan International Airport and taken to detention center where, she was not only robbed of all her savings but repeatedly raped by police officers. She was threatened of dire consequences if she revealed it to anyone.

After a month, unable to bear the mental trauma, Rai revealed her ordeal to her sister. Generally, in such rape cases, the victim’s family tends to silence the rape victim fearing social boycott and loss of ‘prestige’ in Nepali society. But Rai’s family was determined to get justice. Rai’s ordeal was reported by media and this ignited an organic movement called “Occupy Baluwatar” to ensure justice for Rai and bring about legislative changes for swift justice for cases of VAW. This movement was a huge success in terms of participation from civic society, stirring a debate on VAW and leading to conviction of four culprits by the court. However, no significant legislative change was introduced to address the problem.

The problem remains, and every year, there are few gruesome cases which assert that the problem is growing and getting more complicated than ever before. After four years of “Occupy Baluwatar” movement, two months back, a differently-abled woman from a minority community was dragged into bushes and repeatedly raped by a group of Armed Force Police (AFP) personnel. The victim has hearing impaired and cannot speak. Although she cannot express herself in speech, the toll the rape inflicted on her physical and mental health is visible. Our team, along with BP Sah, a freelance journalist, visited the victim to investigate the apathy shown towards her by our society, media and judiciary.

The incident

On the 30thJestha, 2073, she went to a nearby field to herd buffaloes as her daily routine. When she was returning home, a group of APF personnel kidnapped her, gagged her mouth and left her by a river. At dusk, the victim was blindfolded and physically and sexually assaulted by AFP personnel. After the perpetrators left and the petrified victim regained consciousness, she limped to the closest house in the area. She narrated her ordeal to the house owner. The victim’s family was summoned, and the villagers also gathered. The victim brought them to the area where the crime had occurred. Then she lost consciousness.

The villagers informed the Janpath Police (JP), and local media. JP investigated the crime scene, collected evidence and after approximately two hours, she was taken to Shivraj Hospital, Bahadurgunj. The doctor refused to treat her, stating that he had never dealt with any rape case. She was transferred from one hospital to another in ambulance without getting any medication. She went to Tauliya District hospital, Butwal Zonal Hospital, Lumbini Zonal Hospital, Bhairahawa Medical College without proper medication and help. As her condition worsened, her neighbor and a sister-in-law helped book an ambulance and set out for Kathmandu at personal expenses to get treatment. Bir Hospital refused to even admit her and verbally referred to Prasuti Griha, Thapathali. At Prasuti Griha, she went through tests she had already gone multiple times in various other hospitals. She was then referred to Mental Hospital, Lalitpur for consultation. She was treated with anti-anxiety and anti-seizure drugs. Although she was asked to follow up after two weeks by Mental Hospital, she was discharged from Prasuti Griha after three days. The discharge paper clearly mentioned that the patient should be handed over to an organization that looked after women in similar circumstances to her. However, the patient refused and wanted to go back home.

After the First Information Report (FIR) was filed, the case moved to the District Court. For the next three days, the victim’s kin and AFP’s side went to the court, signed the attendance sheet and left due to various reasons. Finally on the 4th day, statement of ten people from the victim’s side was recorded by the Government lawyer. Until now, only two perpetrators have been arrested, the victim alleges that there are many more. Surprisingly, concerned authorities have shown no effort to identify the remaining culprits. The two perpetrators have appointed a private lawyer to fight their case. The Government lawyer has asked the victim's’ family to visit court when the Hon’ Judge summons and wait for the justice to be delivered.

Will the victim get justice anytime soon? The question remains, given the lax attitude of the lawyer and the way the investigation has been blotched up till now.

“There is a conflict of interest in the investigating police because the criminal security forces also belong to same security fraternity,” local reporter BP Sah said. “The victim relies on government lawyer, while the culprits have hired private lawyer to defend themselves. Due to various reasons it is alleged that the government lawyer is not as competent as the private lawyers. Given this scenario, some independent authority needs to oversee the process and ensure that the justice is delivered swiftly.”

Sah alleged that local politics might also be into play in the case and might have hindered the judicial process. The victim's sister-in-law also accused that some people offered them 1 million rupees to settle the case. However, the victim's family refused the money and is pressing for justice.

Media silence

While all this was happening, there was a categorical silence in the media and Kathmandu’s civil society showed indifference towards the case. On our inquiry, many prominent members of civil society confessed ignorance about this case. If their confession is true, the mainstream media needs to self-assess if they failed in this particular case.

Four years after ‘Occupy Baluwatar’ movement, we’re still at the same ground level, if not in the worse position than before when it comes to VAW issues. This scenario demands for a public movement to change attitude towards violence against women. In this case gang rape case, the police officer, lawyers and the state mechanism have taken typical dilly-dallying attitude. The medical treatment and attitude of medical staff was found to be negligent and un-cooperative. It is disappointing that attitudinal barriers at health institutions and the experience of being targeted both due to disability, social class or caste could have profoundly influenced on the mental health of the survivor.

In order to reduce the potential for duplicating questions and re-traumatizing the survivor of sexual assault, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that health care and forensic services should be provided at the same time, and by the same person. The WHO guidelines state that the health and welfare of a survivor of sexual violence has “the overriding priority” i.e. forensic services cannot take precedence over health needs. In this rape case, it was found that medics denied healthcare, citing it as police case or some other alibi and hence referring her to various hospitals. In this case, the plight of the victim was totally ignored by all the healthcare service providers.

The incident and the response of the healthcare services, judiciary system and police investigation simply reinforce the dismal status of Nepal’s state mechanisms where gender, social class, disability, caste and ethnicity and economic background determine an individual’s access to and delivery of services and justice. Whether we need “Occupy Baluwatar 2.0” is a question we all should ask, particularly human rights and civil society activists.

(Dr. Sherpa is an independent researcher. Jha is a researcher and Founder of Nepal Policy Center)

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