BARDIYA - As in all wars, Nepali women have been the most vulnerable victims of the conflict. In a country where the status of women is already one of the lowest in the world, the Maoist conflict has made women even more susceptible to abuse. Increasingly, there are reports of forced liaison and rape leading to the problem of war babies who have been abandoned by fathers in uniform.
On a recent visit to mid- and far-western Nepal, I came across a number of women who thought men in uniform had married them, only to see their husbands vanish. Throughout the Maoist-affected districts, there are many cases of 'marriages' where the soldier or policeman 'husband' has disappeared. It is a phenomenon that needs urgent attention.
In Sanusri village of Bardiya district, only one in every four of the 80 women who got married to locally-posted security force personnel were taken by their husbands when reposted. "These honest security men were the armed police, not the military," explains one woman from the nearby village of Kalika.
Said another woman: "Even if it was a pretend marriage, it was still a marriage, and we hope that once they hear they have children they will come back." But I wonder. Many of the mothers don't even know where to begin looking for their men.
Even if the men deserted the women, one could argue that the relationship was consensual. But there are now many cases of rape by security forces. "They were the lucky ones," one woman in Thakurdwara whispers to me, referring to the abandoned wives. "I was raped." The security forces' men entered her house saying they were looking for Maoists, she relates to me. When they saw only women inside, they raped them.
Another 28-year-old takes me aside and tells me her story. Some soldiers entered her house and dragged away her husband, but four others stayed behind. They eyed her and the baby she was nursing. "I just turned towards the wall and sat still," she recalls in a low voice. They tore off her blouse and dhoti, grabbed her breast and bit it till it bled. All four took turns to rape her.
She never saw her husband, who is now just a statistic in the list of Nepal's 'disappeareds'. "If I ever see those soldiers again, I will kill them myself," she tells me, her lips quivering with anger. She finally breaks down, and I weep with her.
There were others in Bardiya with similar stories, many of them unmarried school girls. Up in the hills in Rolpa's Bhawang the past eight years of war has meant endless trauma: losing dear ones, being forced to flee homes and rape. In Bhawang alone, there are now 36 women with children born from rape by police who were posted here during the early part of the conflict in 1996.
Senior army officers I have spoken to in Dang admit there have been some instances of rape and, whenever uncovered, the guilty soldiers have been punished. But aside from the question of bringing the perpetrators to justice, there is now the problem of finding support for Nepal's war babies. Without fathers, the children can't even register to attend school and are unable to apply for citizenship. Even unmarried mothers can't have their own citizenship papers without a husband.
Worse, Nepali law denies a woman's right to motherhood. The state must now remedy the laws so these forgotten victims of the war are rehabilitated and cared for even if it can't find and punish the guilty. Just talking about this in Kathmandu is not going to help: we need to document these cases, change the laws, set up systems to identify and take care of the women. Finally, the forces responsible for the abuse of Nepali women must be held accountable.
The government needs to enact the National Commission for Women Act that will establish the commission as a powerful apex body so that it can drive through systematic legal reform and oversee its implementation.
Dr Durga Pokhrel is the chairperson of the National Commission for Women.