STAGE FRIGHT: On the popular tv show Nepal Idol, guest Sandip Chhetri, the comedian, hugs host Reema Bishwokarma as she cries out "Me Too!" Chhetri says "Me Three" and the other host Asif Shah jokes "Me Five!"

Viewers of the popular reality tv show Nepal Idol got a rude shock last week when guest Sandip Chhetri hugged host Reema Bishwokarma, apparently against her will. She cringed, backed off, then complained playfully, “Me too!”

Chhetri retorted, “Me three!” Host Asif Shah joined in on the merriment with “Me four, me five!” The audience roared.

This was the latest example of just how little understood (or misunderstood) the #MeToo movement in Nepal is, how harassment of women is accepted as normal, and victims do not have platforms for protest.

A year after American actress Alyssa Milano went on Twitter to ask victims of Harvey Weinstein to use the hashtag, the aftershocks finally arrived in Nepal, but only after India was rocked by accusations against Bollywood musicians, journalists, actors, and former editor and now minister M J Akbar who had to step down.

In Nepal, while the movement generated debate on social media and some women including journalists Subina Shrestha and Meena Kaini and theatre artist Akanchha Karki have spoken up, only one person has been named. Former journalists Rashmila Prajapati and Ujjwala Maharjan accused Province 3 minister and former Kathmandu mayor, Keshav Sthapit, of harassing them.

Doubtless, it has been difficult for women to speak out even though the #MeToo movement has made their accusations credible for the first time. But most Nepali women with horrific accounts of mistreatment and cruelty are outside the public sphere, or do not want to speak out because of stigma.

Leaving aside rape and domestic violence, even workplace abuse of power that #Metoo has been associated with has not come out. Long before #MeToo, actresses Shreesha Karki in 2002 and Jessica Khadka in 2012 committed suicide after their nude images were leaked – indicating that sexual abuse has been rampant in Nepal’s entertainment industry.

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Putting the media on trial, Manjushree Thapa

Aside from film and media, there are also the dance bars, cabin restaurants, dohori (duet-song) venues and massage parlours in which up to 50,000 young women are employed as entertainers. Most have been abused, says former dohori singer Sirjana Pun and founder of the Women Forum for Women.

“Customers do not treat women as professionals, but as animals they can abuse at will,” says Pun. “We have nowhere to go for redress, because the police refuse to register our complaints. Things are changing slowly, but the complaints are still more about labour contract violations than sexual abuse, because those go nowhere.”

Surprisingly, even Pun has not heard of the #MeToo movement, and neither have most trafficked women who have survived unspeakable violations. Sapna Poudel at Shakti Samuha, which was founded by trafficked women, says: “Women here have experienced dreadful sexual abuse, but many do not even open up to their counselors, let alone go public with accusations.”

As the #MeToo movement gains more traction in Nepal, Shakti Samuha is planning to orient survivors, so they can decide whether they want to go public. Few women trafficked to brothels in Nepal, India or overseas and suffer sexual abuse come out, and others in occupations not covered by labour laws like household help have nowhere to complain about sexual abuse.

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Epicenter of trafficking, Om Astha Rai

The missing half, Kapildev Khanal

The Kamlari system of bonded labour was prevalent in western Nepal till it was outlawed in 2006. Former Kamlari Bishnu Chaudhari, 24, has horror stories about slavery and abuse of generations of women from her community. It was common for employers to rape young Kamlaris, father children and abandon them. Chaudhari’s aunt committed suicide at 21 after word spread that she was pregnant.

“We face our abusers every day in the village, but we do not want to rake up the past. Abused women have settled into their new lives, they do not want the stigma from reopening old cases,” says Chaudhari, who is studying to be a lawyer but has not heard of #MeToo. Nor have most of the 13,000 former Kamlari who want to focus on difficult battles for recognition, identity and ancestral property for children born of abuse. Most of the 20,000 Badi women whose traditional occupation used to be the sex trade have not heard of #MeToo either.

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Kamlaris in Dang, Suman Pradhan

At home, at work, Jemima Sherpa

Even though 63% of Nepalis now have access to the Internet, the #MeToo movement here is limited to a small circle of educated people. There are headlines about murder, rape, assault, coercion, manipulation and harrassment, and detractors are using the distinction to undermine the movement.

Outside Nepal, many #MeToo accusers are now facing a troll backlash, and in Nepal many women in media, entertainment, and corporates have remained silent. Former mayor Keshav Sthapit mocked the movement by calling the accusations “a rape of men’s rights”.

Nepal’s #MeToo movement has lost some of its momentum as other campaigns against abuse like #JusticeforNirmala and #RageAgainstRape remain more effective on social media. The possibility of #MeToo movement helping obtain justice for victims in Nepal remains dim.

But Namrata Sharma, Chair of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, has not lost hope. “Twenty years ago, when women activists demanded equal property rights for daughters, people laughed. But today we have that law,” she says. “Likewise, most women may not have heard of #MeToo today, some may poke fun at it, or it may be limited to a small circle, but it is a start. With time, it will help women come out, and end sexual assault.”

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Daughter Slaughter, Monika Deupala

Four-fold increase in reported rape in 10 years, Sewa Bhattarai

Update on 2 Nov: Province 3 Chief Minister Dormani Poudel has fired Provincial Minister Keshav Sthapit (minister for Physical Infrastructure and Development) after an altercation at a cabinet meeting.

Belaboured laws

As the #MeToo movement gains momentum, questions have also been raised about why victims are taking to social media instead of going through proper legal channels. However, are the labour laws of Nepal adequate to curb workplace harassment?

Many legal professionals do not think so. Nepal’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Act came into effect in 2015, which defines workplace as “entities owned by government, corporate bodies or institutions, and firms licensed to carry out business.” This definition leaves out vast areas where women work in and are abused, like household labour and informal sector.

The law does define many acts of harassment, but gives the victims only ninety days to complain about them. “Three months is not enough, victims should be able to complain about harassment any time they want to,” says senior advocate and women’s rights activist Meera Dhungana.

Dhungana also finds the punishment for the crimes too mild. While offenders may be jailed for six months or pay a fine of Rs. 50,000, their supervisor can also solve the problem by transferring them.  “If the offender is transferred, he or she may continue offending at another location. It is not a deterrent at all,” says Dhungana. “Higher fines and jail terms can make offenders think twice before they commit such crimes.”

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Online violence against women, Sahina Shrestha

How does the Nepali media cover rape?, Bhrikuti Rai

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