Tuesday, February 16, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Witch-hunts of low-caste women in Nepal



Witch-hunts of low-caste women in Nepal
Kalli Biswokarma was tortured by neighbours for two days and forced to
eat human waste before she finally gave in and confessed to practising

By Deepesh Shrestha, in Pyutar for AFP
Published: 10:42AM GMT 15 Feb 2010

Those who beat, punched and kicked the 47-year-old mother of one
accused her of casting evil spells on a school teacher who had fallen

"I was victimised because I am a poor woman," said Biswokarma, who
belongs to the Dalit community - the "untouchables" on the lowest rung
of Nepal's rigid Hindu caste hierarchy.

"Around 35 people came to my home and took me away. They trapped me in
a cow shed and forced me to eat faeces and drink urine," she said from
her home in the village of Pyutar, 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of

"The next day they cut my skin with blades. I could not bear the
torture and I confessed to being a witch just to save my life."

Hundreds of Dalit women are thought to suffer a similar ordeal every
year in Nepal, where superstition and caste-based discrimination
remain rife and where most communities still operate on strict
patriarchal lines.

Human rights campaigners say that the perpetrators of such crimes are
rarely brought to justice, with police viewing the persecution of
Dalit women as a matter for the community to sort out itself.

Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal has pronounced 2010 the year to end
violence against women as Nepal makes the transformation from
traditional Hindu monarchy to modern secular state.

But authorities in the impoverished south Asian nation admit they face
an uphill struggle.

"Superstitions are deeply rooted in our society, and the belief in
witchcraft is one of the worst forms of this," said Sarwa Dev Prasad
Ojha, minister for women and social welfare.

"Such traditional practices cannot be wiped away overnight."

The Women's Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC), a local pressure group that
campaigns for women's rights, reports that it has documented at least
82 cases in two years in which women who were tortured by neighbours
on charges of witchcraft.

But coordinator Sarita Dahal believes that this was only the tip of
the iceberg.

"We believe many more women are going through the physical and mental
pain that these superstitions cause," she said.

"Many don't come to our attention because the women fear they will be
abandoned by their families and ostracised from their communities if
they come forward."

Nepalese law prohibits violence against women, but Dahal said it was
rarely enforced, particularly when the victims were from marginalised

Experts say that superstitions about witchcraft are often merely a
pretext for victimising women, and Suraj Kafle, a sociologist, points
out that it is almost always low-caste women who face such

"It is always socially and economically vulnerable women who suffer,"
said Kafle.

"This is simply an excuse to torture poor women who lack support from
the rest of the community. Poverty and lack of education make them an
easy target."

Nainakala Thapa, the head of the national women's commission, called
the practice a "national shame".

"Women who belong to low-caste groups are made scapegoats because they
cannot defend themselves," said Thapa.

Thapa pointed out that when a person dies or falls sick it is often
spiritual healers looking for someone to blame who are the first to
make accusations of witchcraft.

"It is easy to identify a low-caste woman and brand her a witch," she said.

For Biswokarma and her family, now back in their home village after a
stay in a women's refuge in Kathmandu, the stigma of being accused of
witchcraft persists.

"I am still afraid because some of the people who tortured me are
still in the village," she said.

"I have lost my dignity, but I have not given up hope. I will fight
for justice."

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