Recent #MeToo revelations steer public discourse in Nepal

Screenshot from Khabar Bulletin TV. Fair use.

Nepal has been reminded yet again of how vulnerable women are to sexual harassment in society as recent revelations by a survivor of rape have propelled tens of thousands of protesters into the streets of Kathmandu demanding justice. On May 18, 2022, a TikTok user, identified as a former beauty pageant winner called Sushmita, published a 10-video series on TikTok, in which she shared her experiences of sexual assault. They went viral across the country. Immediately the #justiceforsushmita movement sparked an uproar among young people, activists, and online and offline national media when the survivor shared through her social media account the horrors she experienced 10 years ago.

Photojournalist Prabin Ranabhat tweeted:

As per Sushmita's videos, the incident happened in 2014 when she was 16 years old. She participated in a beauty pageant, and was crowned first runner up. After the end of the event, the organizers hosted a party. During the celebration, one of the organizers drugged and raped her in a hotel room. He then took inappropriate pictures and videos and threatened to release them. The organizer blackmailed her and continued to rape her over six months; she also revealed that his friends also raped her simultaneously. Furthermore, in her video, she also shared how her colleagues in her work as well also raped and sexually harassed her.

After the revelation and nationwide protest, the Nepal police took immediate action and arrested the alleged perpetrator, who is currently under police investigation. It has also been reported that he has sexually abused many other girls.

This recent incident has done a lot to open up conversations about sexual assault; there are so many cases circulating around social media. Several young students have reported that their teacher raped them.  

Public outcry

In response, many influential people alongside the general public have shown their support for Sushmita on Twitter.

Writer Buddhi Sagar tweeted:

Saying that no complaint has been lodged! Is another kind of ego to avoid the issue. Shouldn't the concerned body move forward after the young woman dares to speak in public after years of mental harassment? How many troubles will be given to the victim by calling them indoors?

Miss Nepal 2018 Shrinkhala Khatiwada shared:

Former President of Bibeksheel Party Rabindra Mishra wrote:

What if that scream was coming from your own home? If everyone doesn't think like that, then the thunderbolt may strike on our own family. A sit-in protest organised by young people in Baluwatar for justice for Sushmita.

Are there enough laws and regulations to protect sexual harassment survivors in Nepal?

There has been a 20-fold increase in sexual harassment cases in Nepal in past 25 years; however, only a few of them were reported. The celebrities, politicians, and people in power reported for committing sexual harassment tend to get away with their crimes easily.

As per the law, the statute of limitations for rape in Nepal is only a year, which means the survivor has to file a complaint within a year. This highlights the limits of the law in addressing sexual misconduct in Nepal. People are protesting and demanding fast track courts and the elimination of the statute of limitations on rape  cases in Nepal.

In this case, the accused has been charged under the Human Trafficking and Transportation (control) Act 2007 that has no statute of limitations. Although Nepal has revised its rape laws, many believe that they remain inadequate.

Survivors are still blamed

In patriarchal Nepali society, rape and sexual harassment are not something that fits into the box; they are considered impure and taboo subjects of discussion, while the predators still live a dignified life. First of all, most sexual violence goes unreported. Survivors do not come forward because of the shame and stigma attached; they fear retaliation or worry that they will not be believed and their lives will be upended. On some rare occasions, even if survivors muster the courage to file a complaint, the police and prosecutors face political interference that will prevent justice being served.

In her videos, Sushmita also mentioned that she approached Malvika Subba, a former Miss Nepal and an outspoken feminist, after her rape and Subba didn't help her. Nepali expatriate Sudeep Raj Uprety lashed out at Subba for doing nothing:

The aftermath of sexual harassment or rape is extremely difficult and painful and it scars a person for a lifetime. Society and the government should provide them with medical and psychological care to enhance their recovery process. Unfortunately, many people subscribe to the idea that women are responsible for their own assault, and that their attire is the main reason for sexual violence. In 2018, a Nepali TV channel conducted a video interview and asked about how people perceive rape survivors.  In the interview, a young man said that “male emotions may increase if girls wear short clothes.” In the same interview another middle-aged man said that “Once a girl is raped, she is impure. How can we clean her again? It's not acceptable.”

In March 2022, two youths were charged with raping and murdering an 18-month-old baby. How could women's attire be an invitation to this sexual assault? This is a harmful status quo for women that prevents them from living a dignified life in society.

What's next?

Rape cases in Nepal are rapidly increasing, sexual violence is becoming more common than one can imagine. The many #metoo stories coming to light lately indicate that society and weak laws have sidetracked the #metoo movement in Nepal.  While this momentum has brought some awareness in Nepal, there remains much to do to ensure it leads a lasting systematic change on sexual violence and assault in women.

Women have been screaming out loud demanding better protection, but they are constantly being sidelined, silenced, bullied and dishonoured by society.

Petitions are being signed, rallies are being held, more social dialogue is making headlines; however these actions are not enough to bring real change. Women can be abused anywhere, anytime: at home, at school, at work, and at many other places. Therefore, it is important to educate society that a dress code cannot stop assault. It is necessary to create comprehensive education regarding sexual harassment in homes, schools, and workplaces, and strengthen the legal support to fight any form of sexual harassment in society.

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