This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the conflict
Nepal was never colonized and remained a monarchy until well after the wave of decolonization in the region. In 1921, the Nepal-Britain Treaty of 1923 conferred on Nepal the right to conduct its foreign policy in any way it deemed fit (Hutt, 2004; Whelpton, 2005). Nepal was ruled by the Rana dynasty at this time – a regime that evoked much criticism from pro-democracy movements in the country. Eventually, the Rana autocracy was overthrown and the Congress established a parliamentary democracy. However, a decade long power-struggle followed between the king and the government.
This culminated in the scrapping of democracy, and the establishment of a party-less Panchayat system as the authority to govern Nepal. At this point, political parties were banned and politicians imprisoned or exiled (Hutt 2004; Whelpton 2005). While the Panchayat system modernised life in Nepal, it came at the cost of great restrictions on personal liberty and censorship. The push for democratic change led to the creation of several political parties, including the Communist Party of Nepal, which launched the People’s War in 1996.
The Nepalese Civil War took place between 1996 and 2006 and was largely between the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist; CPN-M) and the Government of Nepal. The protracted armed conflict began on February 13, 1996, when the CPN-M announced its intention to overthrow the Nepalese monarchy in order to establish a republican system. The decade of war involved large-scale violence that included summary executions, war crimes, kidnapping and abduction, purges, massacres, and large-scale crimes against humanity. The armed conflict culminated in the Comprehensive Peace Accord, which was signed on November 21, 2006.
The Prevalence of Sexual Violence
During the entire timeline of the armed conflict in Nepal, estimates by the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction of the Government of Nepal (Basnet n.d.) show that a total of 17,828 people were killed, 1452 were disappeared, 9000 women were widowed, 9000 families and 89,171 people were internally displaced, 14,438 pieces of property were damaged, 5,912 people were injured and disabled, and 2985 people were kidnapped. However, there is no accurate statistic indicating the number of women who faced sexual violence. As a result of different statistics recorded by different NGOs and documenting agencies, many of these narratives continue to remain invisible.
To a large extent, data and information on the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence targeting women and girls during the People’s War in Nepal remain scarce. This is because of multiple reasons. On part of organizations that supported (and continue to engage) in post-conflict peacebuilding, the documentation of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) has not been a priority. On part of the women who faced such violence, the socio-cultural burden of stigma, fear of reprisals and isolation by their support systems, the absence of a support system in itself, and family pressure to remain silent have prevented them from reporting these incidents (Chhetri 2006). The extant reportage shows that women were targeted with rape and sexual violence, and those that lived in and around areas that were CPN(M) strongholds or the army barracks.
The Strategic Use of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence in the armed conflict was deliberately deployed as war tactic both to intimidate and threaten women, and by extension, their families and communities, and as punishment for either engaging in CPN(M) activities (when carried out by the security sector) or for their nexus to the government and security sector (when carried out by the CPN(M) cadres). While sexual violence was generally aimed at women and girls in general, those from marginalized caste and ethnic groups were doubly vulnerable to sexual violence (ICTJ 2010). The CPN(M) targeted these communities to recruit combatants (Dhakal et al., 2003), and this created large-scale victimization by the security forces as well. The Royal Nepal Army targeted entire communities to flush out combatants. In the course of many of these operations, caste rendered women all the more vulnerable, where there were instances where Dalit women were targeted simply because of their caste identity. Women who were targeted by the security forces with sexual violence were accused of either participating in or supporting the activities of the CPN(M), or even having some direct or indirect affiliation with them. On the other hand, wives of government officials and security sector personnel, and women in actual relationships or accused of being in relationships with such men were also subjected to sexual violence (ICTJ 2010). Across the board, women were “harassed by the demand of both warring sides for shelter and food and had to face sexual slavery, sexual harassment, rape, and other forms of violence which affected their physical as well as their mental wellbeing (Basnet n.d.).”
Aside from this, there were also instances of opportunistic rape, where it was not a deliberate strategy but took place because of an enabling environment. This usually happened around army barracks, and the women and girls targeted were those who went about their everyday lives – such as fetching wood or water, visiting the market, or even doing domestic work. Young girls who went to school were subject to inappropriate security checks, where they were molested in the name of a pat search, and were often subject to verbal abuse. False marriages also prevailed, where security forces married young women and girls under false identities, and then deserted them, sometimes when they were transferred, or even otherwise. In several of these cases, women were pregnant and forced to raise the children born out of these false marriages single-handedly. These seem like instances of opportunistic rape, as well, where the enabling environment and lack of accountability mechanisms provided room for such forms of sexual assault to occur.
Any act of sexual violence carried out by the CPN(M) cadre members was met with penal consequences within the party’s ranks. They took action against their cadres for perpetrating acts of sexual violence both against civilians and against female cadres, and held them accountable to their code of conduct and discipline (Gautam et al., 2003). This was because the CPN(M) clearly considered sexual violence targeting civilians as antagonistic to its norms and ideologies. Further, the CPN(M) treated the war itself as an endeavor in support of civilians and for civilians, whom they also significantly depended on for food, shelter, clothing, and even recruits – and pursuing a campaign of sexual violence would have rendered their supply of these needs impossible. However, on part of the government, there has been no more than an acknowledgment that conflict-related sexual violence prevailed (Human Rights Watch, 2014).
Hutt, Michael, ed. (2004). Himalayan 'people's War': Nepal's Maoist Rebellion. C. Hurst & Co.
Whelpton, John (2005). A History of Nepal. Cambridge University Press.
Human Rights Watch. 2014. “Silenced and Forgotten: Survivors of Nepal’s Conflict-era Sexual Violence.” https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/09/23/silenced-and-forgotten/survivors-nepals-conflict-era-sexual-violence
S. Gautam, A. Banskota and R. Machanda, ‘Where There are No Men: Women in the Maoist Insurgency in Nepal,” in Understanding the Maoist Movement of Nepal, ed. Dipak Thapa, Kathmandu: Martin Chautari, 2003, pp.93-124.
Basnet, Babita. n.d. "Women’s Human Rights in Nepal Focused on Conflict Situation." https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/cooperation_meeting_gender_media_ppt_basnet.pdf
ICTJ. “Across the Lines. The Impact of Nepal’s Conflict on Women” 2010. https://www.ictj.org/publication/across-lines-impact-nepals-conflict-women
Dhakal, Suresh, Khagendra Sangraula and Govinda Bartaman, “Whose War? Economic and Socio-Cultural Impacts of Nepal’s Maoist-Government Conflict,” Kathmandu: NGO Federation of Nepal, 2003.
Chettri, Anju. 2006. "Rape: The Way of Subduing the Opponents." In Women, Peace, and Restructuring (https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/pdacu023.pdf)
Documented by Kirthi Jayakumar