By Gopal Sharma
KATHMANDU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Eight years after Nepal's civil war ended, hundreds of victims of war-time rape still live in fear with no access to justice, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.
Nepal, wedged between China and India, is recovering from the decade-long conflict between Maoist rebels and government forces in which more than 18,000 people were killed, thousands wounded and hundreds went missing.
Human rights activists say both security forces and rebels committed crimes against civilians such as abduction, rape, torture and murder during the conflict.
The New York-based HRW said in a report that many cases of rape remained unreported with victims isolated and unable to seek redress. It called on the government to take action to encourage women to come forward and to scrap a legal requirement that rapes be reported within 35 days.
"For more than 10 years already, these women have suffered in silence and fear while the perpetrators have walked free," said HRW South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly.
"Justice and reparations for women who suffered sexual assault is long overdue unfinished business from the civil war," Ganguly said in a statement.
Peace and Reconstruction Minister Narahari Acharya said perpetrators of crimes such as rape would not be eligible for amnesty under a planned Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
"We’ll set up the Commission soon and it will investigate all crimes including rapes committed during the conflict and bring those responsible for serious abuses to justice," Acharya told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Based on the testimonies of more than 50 women, the report "Silenced and Forgotten Survivors of Nepal’s Conflict-Era Sexual Violence" said a combination of social stigma and a fear of retaliation had prevented victims from coming forward.
Members of the security forces raped and sexually abused female combatants after arrest, and targeted female relatives of Maoist suspects, or those they believed to be Maoist supporters because they provided rebels with food and shelter.
Maoist combatants, on the other hand, raped women who stood up to them and refused to support their party’s activities. In some cases, women were targeted if they were found alone, the report said.
Several women were still children when the crimes were committed, it added.
"They kicked me as if I was a football from here to there," said Madhavi, a pseudonym given to one victim in the report.
"When the first person raped me, I was conscious. But there were four or five people inside the shed, and I don’t know how many others raped me."
"It is hard to describe how helpless I felt," said a woman named as Meena in the 78-page report. "No amount of crying or screaming or begging helped. Everything they did was against my will."
It is unclear how many women were raped during the war but Nepali charity Advocacy Forum, which worked with HRW, said it had collected evidence from over 200 victims.
Since the war ended in 2006, Nepal has integrated thousands of former rebel fighters into its national army and retired them, and is currently drafting a new constitution.
Human rights activists say the impoverished Himalayan nation has been too slow to investigate war crimes and bring to book those responsible for abuses.
"The government of Nepal needs to remove the hurdles it places along the way for victims, and make the system for reporting sexual assault both feasible and accessible," said HRW's Ganguly.
(Editing by Nita Bhalla and Tim Pearce)