Witch Hunt: Medieval Practice in Modern Nepal
As I recall reading that horrific piece of news, I still get goose bumps and my heart pounds with rage and repulsion to imagine the whole picture of a helpless woman being tortured senseless, drenched with kerosene and set aflame in broad daylight by her own family. Dhegani Mahato, a forty year old mother of three might have never imagined in her weirdest dream that her own so-called family and neighbours would burn her alive just because a shaman alleged her of practicing witchcraft. The incident occurred in a small suburb of Chitwan, barely 80km away from the capital. The news was still hot when Sunita Pudasaini got severely beaten and blinded with a sickle in both her eyes by her own sister and sister-in-law, who assumed that their childless fate was inflicted by Sunita as diagnosed by a witch doctor alleging her of witchcraft and sorcery. It is a sheer pity that such an abhorrent and inhumane incident occurred in the crowded Kathmandu city, the hub of so-called intellectual and civilised elites. Are we so blind to see all these horrendous and barbarous crimes and act as if we didn’t? Are we retarded to the extent that we can’t think, can’t reason? Or perhaps we’ve become so insensitive that we have ceased to even feel!
In November 2009, Jug Chaudhary, a 30 year old mother of four was thrashed severely, paraded naked around a village in Kailali and forced to eat human excreta by her family and neighbours, who assumed her the reason behind the death of her mother-in-law’s deceased bother as they believed that she cast spells on him. Kali BK, another victim was battered brutally, humiliated and fed her own excreta by Bimala Lama, the headmistress of Gadhibhanjyang Primary School in Pyutar-07, Lalitpur in March 2009. The victim was forced to confess that she was the reason for causing all the alleged malice when she was threatened to cut off her breasts by her own sisters and other culprits. Such cases are but meager examples of hundreds of other similar crimes, the brunt of which must always be borne by women. The world has ushered into the post modern era and no wonder we are still living in medieval barbarity.
According to Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC), an astonishing 103 cases of gender based violence against women induced by allegation of witchcraft were lodged in 2011 alone, while yet another report of Informal Sector service center (INSEC) reveals that a total of 61 cases of witchcraft allegations were reported. The victims mostly are widows, single and elderly women with no proper support and belong to illiterate, poor, Dalit and marginalized communities, often in some cases with a long family feud over properties or lands. The Asia Foundation’s report puts that 81 percent of women face domestic violence in Nepal, 50 to75 percent of which goes unreported, while of the reported cases, 70 percent implicate a family member. Sexual harassment is experienced by 43 percent of women, which is rampant and pervasive whether at workplace or at home; while an appalling 7000 to 15000 girls between 10 to 12 years of age are trafficked each year.
Marani Devi (60 years old) hails from Mahottari district, the Eastern plains of Nepal. She was beaten brutally and forced to consume human faeces in an allegation of practising witchery in 2001. Finally with the help of human right activists, social activists, advocates and civil society, she was successful to launch a campaign against such allegations with a goal to end such malpractices, which then attracted a group of advocates to file a writ petition challenging the witchcraft. She received Parijat Women Award in 2002. Marani Devi’s case was perhaps the first one to be recognised at the national level which ultimately led an initiative towards drafting the legislation against witchcraft. Amid the existing chaos and political impasse, aggravated by a decade old conflict and socio-political upheaval, there is a general impunity pervasive in everyday life. The situation is further deteriorated by a recent failure of Constituent Assembly to promulgate new Constitution, on which rested the hope of general Nepalese people. The collapse of CA after five long years’ of aspiration and its failure to promulgate Constitution has caused a huge frustration and distress at large, while the existing unrest and hopelessness has been nourished by the abysmal situation of insecurity, lack of proper rules, laws and thriving impunity and anarchy.
Against the backdrop of such a political standstill, the legislation of witchcraft is gathering dust and our mothers, sisters, daughters and daughter-in-laws continue to be murdered, raped, abused, burnt alive and doomed to social stigma by the inhumane allegation of witchery and sorcery in our modern Nepal dreaming to achieve Millennium Development Goals by 2015. The draft bill against witchcraft would punish the perpetrator with a jail term of up to 10 years and a fine of up to 70,000 in Nepali rupees. In case of death, the homicide related laws in existing criminal code would be invoked. It has provisions of interim relief and protection measures to the victims during the course of proceedings. The proposed legislation however has been a futile effort till yet as it hasn’t been yet approved and adopted officially. In the case of Dhegani Mahato, the government has announced to provide 1,000,000 rupees as compensation to her children. Sunita is paid 200,000 by the government as compensation and case has been filed against the involved culprits. Kali BK received a compensation of 40,000 NRS and the perpetrators were arrested although she’s yet to achieve justice due to the lack of stringent laws. Marani Devi is a grassroots social worker, promoting the cause of women’s rights at present and is chair of the locally formed Rural Community Development Council and organizes women to fight against such malpractices.
Although Nepal is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is of no avail to these hundreds of helpless Dheganis, nor is the CEDAW of any use to countless Sunitas in our society. The blatant and heinous violation of women’s human rights continues to devastate hundreds of women and the future of their children as well as of our society. The legacy of this cruel malpractice is impossible to mitigate until there’s legal cure, redress and proper campaign against such vicious crimes. Witch hunting is an extreme form of gender-based violence and social evil that must be eliminated and made punishable with the strongest possible legal mechanisms to punish the perpetrators. And the time is now to start from me, from you and each one of us- say no to abuse, say no to violence, speak for change!