When Alisha Basnet* visited the cyber bureau of Nepal Police to register an online harassment complaint, the officer in charge went through her phone and then proceeded to question her character. The reason was she had many guys on her social media and contact list.
“The police officer thought I was the one who was deliberately drawing boys’ leering attention,” says the 21-year-old. “I was in a state of utter terror and yet the officer found the whole thing funny.” Basnet returned home without filing the complaint.
Niharika Rajput was 17 when she was drugged, raped and blackmailed. She was impregnated by the rapist and subsequently disowned by her own family. The mother of the now 22-month-baby has since been fighting for justice alone.
She has demanded a DNA test to establish the relation between her baby and its father, her rapist. Over the last two years, Rajput has reached out to the authorities for help and staged a hunger strike pleading her case. But legal help has not been forthcoming as her rapist continues to walk freely.
The 2018 rape-and-murder of 13-year-old Nirmala Panta in Kanchanpur district had sent shock waves across Nepal. Protests erupted for proper investigation after suggestions of police tampering with the evidence to allegedly protect the culprits. Those protests and clamoring for justice for Panta have, over the years, died down and with them the underlying investigation too.
Nepal’s legal system has time and again failed the victims of sexual assault and murder. Without compunction, authorities and the society at large are quick to question the victims’ character whenever there are reports of sexual crimes.
Rajput, too, says the police in a roundabout way suggested that she was asking for it because she had showed up at the station in pants and a t-shirt, a ‘provocative’ dress.
Advocate Samikchya Baskota says victims of sexual crimes do not feel either safe or comfortable with the police.
“The authorities themselves are not welcoming,” she says. “They start by judging the woman because she carries and dresses herself a certain way. No wonder victims are reluctant to report.”
Deputy Inspector General Tek Prasad Rai, Nepal Police spokesperson, claims to have a zero-tolerance policy for such misconduct from officers.
“Every police station has at least one woman officer to forestall such incidents,” he says.
But despite Rai’s claims, there are plenty of incidents whereby law enforcement officers have questioned the character of rape survivors based on their appearance.
Even the first step to justice is traumatizing for girls and women who have been raped or sexually abused, says sociologist Meena Uprety. “How can the survivors hope when they are humiliated for speaking up?”
In some cases authorities refuse to file complaints outright.
Chamila Bhattarai, spokesperson of the National Women Commission, says most such complaints are related to domestic violence.
“We get many domestic violence survivors asking for help after the police refused to register their complaints,” she says.
Advocate Baskota says Nepal’s legal system itself is an obstruction for survivors of sexual crimes and violence.
Even if a complaint is filed and it reaches the court, the justice process is tedious and traumatizing for the survivors, she adds. “Everywhere they go, they are required to explain the incident, which is mentally and emotionally draining for survivors and their families. This is one reason many survivors retract their statements. They feel the justice system is not meant to serve them.”
Advocate Bimala Khadka suggests a fast-track approach in rape cases. She says it is one way to ease the mental and emotional trauma of the victims and reduce the chances of perpetrators influencing the case.
She says perpetrators with money and political clout can wield such undue influence. “Our corrupt judicial system has left many survivors helpless.” she adds.
Baskota agrees. “If the accused has a powerful social status, it is easy for him to prove his innocence.”
The statute of limitations for rape and sexual violence is another reason many survivors cannot get justice.
There have been rallying cries for removing the one-year statute, as many rights activists and women feel that survivors are too traumatized to talk about their harrowing experiences. But nothing has come of it yet.
“Many child victims don’t even know they have been sexually assaulted until much later when they grow up,” says Baskota, while arguing the statute for rape and sexual violence, which used to be just three months until a couple of years ago.
But Rai says incidents of sexual violence survivors coming forward has increased: the number of actual complaints increasing from 1,469 in the fiscal 2017/18 to 2,395 in 2021/22.
“It is a good sign that many survivors are choosing to speak up rather than hiding their trauma because of societal pressure.”
Rai says the earlier the survivor files a complaint, the easier it is for the police to catch the accused.
“Physical evidence plays a major role in identifying the accuser. The bodily trauma and the vaginal swab are essential for investigation,” he says.
Mohna Ansari says this is where the authorities miss the point.
“As important as it is to persecute the criminal, it is as important to protect the survivors,” she says. “The very approach of putting a victim through the ordeal of a vaginal swab and other physical examinations is traumatizing.”
Ansari is of the view that the survivor’s statement alone should be enough to pursue an investigation. “It should be up to the accused to prove his innocence.”
Sociologist Uprety says the ultimate responsibility of preventing crimes against women and delivering them justice, however, lies with the society.
The instances of rape and violence survivors being humiliated in police stations, she says, are the result of the society’s patriarchal mindset.
“We live in a society where the survivors are forced to drop the charges and retract their statements by their own families and communities,” she says. “This has to change.”
(*Name changed to protect privacy)