Another life lost. The rape and murder of 17-year-old Bhagirathi Bhatta in Baitadi district has once again shocked our collective conscience and infuriated our communal compunction. Yet, the number of sexual assaults only seems to be going up. At least seven cases of rape are reported daily in Nepal. According to the Nepal Police, 2,144 cases of rape and 687 cases of attempted rape were lodged last year. And this is just the tip of the iceberg considering a 2020 report by the non-governmental organisation-- Anti-Slavery International. It states that 95 per cent of rape and sexual violence cases are never reported.
Indeed, the situation has reached alarming proportions and it would not be wrong to say that Nepal currently faces an ‘epidemic’ of sexual crimes. And the driving force behind this epidemic is the state and the society’s failure to provide justice.
Survivors of sexual violence face an uphill battle right from the start. It is hard for them to even take a case to the authorities. The family and the community try to suppress such incidences in the name of ‘honour’. We have heard of many instances when elected representatives and police officers themselves have been involved in quieting the victims and forcing them to accept monetary and non-monetary settlements.
Even if a case is registered, the investigation and the court cases can be very intrusive and run unsettlingly long, often victimising the survivor further. In the aftermath of the violence, survivors may not be able to open up to officials and they may not have sufficient resources to navigate the judicial system and pursue a case. As a result, we have a situation where only 60 per cent of the rape cases are closed and only about a quarter of the victims get a favourable verdict.
Moreover, a few studies done on the matter have found that members of Nepal’s judiciary, especially the lower courts, seem overly concerned with technicalities such as penetration, bodily injuries, the explicit utterance of the word “no” or rejection of forceful sexual advances and completion of intercourse by ejaculation. This leads to many rapists being set free on a “lack of evidence” or the crime being declared an attempted rape rather than rape.
Then, there is our victim-blaming mentality. It is 2021 and many in our country still believe women’s actions and/or appearance are what lead to rape. Women are viewed as transgressors of morality and sickening crimes like rape seen as a result of their transgressions. This is what was behind the recent proposal (not decision, as the Department so strongly stressed) of the Department of Immigration to require any women under 40 to obtain recommendations from their families and ward offices before travelling abroad. The thought here is that women, if left to their own devices, will go out of bounds. So, they must be restricted. They must respect the limits set on them or else their safety is not guaranteed.
Nepal has laws on the books to punish rapists. Now, we must implement them in letter and spirit. Rape survivors are entitled to have a counsellor present with them while talking to the police and in court. So, they should be given one by default, not only when they ask for it. Rape cases should get prioritised fast-track hearing and the first responders, the security agencies, should be given gender-sensitivity training. No person should ever have to hear “This isn’t really rape” from the state or the society’s apparatus when they open up about their ordeal.
And while demanding justice for Bhagirathi, let us also remember the rape and murder of Nirmala Panta. Nirmala’s case still remains unsolved more than two years later.