Nepal: Sexual Crimes Spark Debate on Rape Laws
Activists say it may take longer than a year for rape victims to muster the courage to approach authorities
Women's rights activists have taken to the streets in Nepal in recent days to protest against sexual crimes in the country after a former child actor and model recently made public allegations over a rape that was committed eight years ago.
In a series of social media posts, the now 24-year-old woman said that when she was 16, she had been drugged, raped, filmed and then blackmailed by the organizer of a beauty pageant.
The horrifying account shocked the country and also sparked a debate on controversial legislation that restricts victims' ability to seek justice.
Other women have since come forward and shared their own stories of being sexually assaulted, some when they were children.
The protesters are demanding swift justice for victims of sexual violence, but Nepal's restrictive statute of limitations in cases of sexual crimes has been a barrier for survivors to seek justice.
Under the country's penal code, complaints of rape and other sexual violence must be filed within one year from the date of the commission of crime.
Due to the limitation, in the case of the model Nepali police could only file human trafficking and abduction charges against the alleged perpetrator, drawing widespread outrage.
Women's rights organizations now call for an overhaul of rape laws in the South Asian nation, saying that in a socially conservative society where survivors of sexual crimes face widespread stigma, harassment, victim-blaming and, sometimes, death threats, among other problems, many victims might be afraid and think twice before filing a complaint.
They say it may take longer than a year for them to finally muster the courage to approach authorities to seek justice.
"Many victims hesitate to come forward and share their ordeals due to the victim-blaming culture, as well as the lack of protection and solidarity from the government side," Mohna Ansari, a woman rights activist and former member of the National Human Rights Commission, told DW.
She pointed out that there could be a high prevalence of unreported cases of sexual violence involving young girls and children in the country.
Major obstacle to justice
A 2021 report revealed that almost two-thirds of the thousands of rape cases filed in Nepal every year do not end in conviction, resulting in impunity and emboldening perpetrators.
Every year, many more cases also go unreported.
Against this backdrop, the statute of limitations for rape poses a major obstacle to justice.
International NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called on Nepal's government to take swift action to bring the nation's rape laws into line with international standards.
Last week, female lawyers approached the Supreme Court and demanded the statute's removal, arguing that it violates constitutional rights to justice for victims of crime that are meant to ensure that all acts of sexual violence are punishable by law.
Politicians support amending the statute
This isn't the first time there has been a demand for the removal of the statute of limitations in rape cases. But the government has so far failed to take action.
Many lawmakers, however, say they now support amending the statute.
Parliament Speaker Agni Sapkota has urged Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's government to take stern action against perpetrators of sexual crimes.
Gagan Thapa, a lawmaker from the ruling Nepali Congress Party, has called for amending the existing law to facilitate investigations into cases where crimes were committed more than a year ago.
Opposition politician Binda Pandey argued in parliament on Sunday that the statute barred and discouraged many victims from seeking justice.
The prime minister has given assurances that his government will review the law.
Phadindra Gautam, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, said that authorities are examining whether to make changes to the statute or scrap it altogether.
"We are consulting with the concerned stakeholders and assessing the practices of other countries having similar socioeconomic conditions to ours," he told DW. "We will soon introduce a bill to this effect in parliament."
Ansari said that she hopes the courage shown by the young woman by making public her ordeal, coupled with a swift revision of the statute of limitations, will encourage many other victims to come forward and seek justice.
She, however, stressed the need for government support for those coming forward to file cases. The victims won't get justice if they're not protected by the state, Ansari noted.
Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru
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