April 15, 2013
Depending on whom you talk to in Nepal, Mandira Sharma, founder of Advocacy Forum-Nepal, is either an enlightened frontrunner of women’s rights, or a strident uber-feminist, who threatens the male-dominated legal system.
When I met her for this interview in Budanilakantha, I sensed determination but not stridency. There is will in her voice and a forward-marching compactness to her thought process, but her timbre is decidedly gentle, as if to suggest that she has been spending as much time consoling women as she has been fighting for their rights.
In the event, the detainees' stories that Mandira has brought into public view illustrate a whole sequence of common illegal practices: flaunted habeas corpus, torture, falsified evidence, isolation from families, and lack of information about the right to counsel. For women detainees especially, the abuses are compounded by instances of sexual harassment.
In 2001 she founded the Advocacy Forum with other defense lawyers, all committed to securing the rule of law and justice to all Nepalis, regardless of gender.
DUNHAM: Where did you grow up?
SHARMA: I was born in the western part of Nepal, the district called Baglung. It was somewhat remote when I grew up. We didn’t have an accessible motor road, which made a huge difference.
DUNHAM: Did you come from a farming family?
SHARMA: Yes, basically farmers.
DUNHAM: How big was your village?
SHARMA: Now it is growing, because it has become some kind of urban town. But at that time it was a small village.
DUNHAM: Did you have siblings?
SHARMA: Yes, I had two brothers and one sister. One brother died at quite an early age.
DUNHAM: As a young girl, what were your expectations? What
kind of life did you think you would have? Did your parents support you in
going to school? Or was marriage their main priority?
SHARMA: The expectations for a girl in my village was to learn how to do household chores and to look after others. Education was OK up to a certain level; up to the eighth grade. People felt that, as a girl, you needed to be literate, but not too educated. It wasn’t necessary for a woman. It was a waste.
But we kids were lucky enough in our family. Basically it was my mother who fought within the family to send us to school. Fortunately, all of us had opportunities to continue our educations beyond eighth grade.
DUNHAM: Was there a secondary school in your village?
SHARMA: Yes, there was, but after we completed our School-Leaving Certificate (SLC), we had to choose the subject for our higher studies. At that point, we didn’t have many options to choose from in the village. For example, I wanted to study medicine at that time. I concentrated on science and math, which were required in order for you to be eligible to go attend science college. But it was not available in the village. And my family was not in a position to send me alone to other towns – Pokhara or Kathmandu.
In both cases, the towns were too far away and we had no family members living there, so sending a girl child on her own to another town wasn’t going to happen.
DUNHAM: How old were you then?
SHARMA: Sixteen. I had no choice but to change my subject. Law. Of course, I was not that happy because law was not something I wanted to pursue. It was my mother who encouraged me to study law, saying that “there are very few female lawyers in this country; may you contribute more.” But I was very upset that I was not able to pursue science. Anyway, I studied law because that was what was available to me.
DUNHAM: What about your father? Was he hesitant to see you continue your studies?
SHARMA: My father didn’t see that much value in sending girl children to get a higher education. He had seen many women, who even though they were educated, had to spend all their time at home and that is what he use to tell me. He didn’t prevent us from continuing our education but I think in his mind he thought it really wasn’t that necessary. He didn’t encourage us. And I think he was also scared that something might happen to us if we went away to school.
DUNHAM: Was it in law school that you first became interested in women’s issues?
SHARMA: No, it was before that. Even growing up, I was aware of women’s issues. For example, my older brother: When he completed his SLC, he went to Kathmandu for further studies. Also my other brother [cousin?] was planning to go to school in another town. And I felt there was a restriction on me just because I was a girl. So I had a sense of what discrimination was at an early age. I resented that.
But then came along the democratic movement of 1990. There was a big change going on in Nepal at that time, even in my district. I saw many of our teachers being arrested because they were pro-democracy. And even before that, I saw some of my family members being arrested, detained –
DUNHAM: On what grounds?
SHARMA: On the grounds that they had different political ideologies. At that time, you weren’t supposed to have any other ideology than the ongoing Panchyat [the political system of Nepal in effect from 1962 until 1990, formulated by King Mahendra after overthrowing the democratically elected government and dissolving the parliament in 1960. The political system was a party-less "guided" democracy in which the people could elect their representatives, while real power remained in the hands of the monarch.]
DUNHAM: Was you family affiliated with any particular pro-democratic party?
SHARMA: At that time, I didn’t really make that distinction. It was either a multi-party system or the Panchyat system. This was prior to 1990.
In 1990, I saw that many people in the multi-party democracy movement were being arrested. I was just starting college. I also heard a lot of stories about torture, while people were in detention. At that time, I had not had the opportunity to talk to any of those torture victims, but I was aware of that situation.
But within that period, I completed a Certificate Level of the Law. [Proficiency Certificate Level – equivalent, in America, to a high school diploma.] A bachelor’s degree was not available in that village, so, if I wanted to continue my education I had to go to Pokhara or come to Kathmandu. So it became a family issue once again: How could they send a daughter alone? I was too young, not grown up. There was real tension within the family.
So that’s why I got married. Because I wanted to pursue my education and my family thought it was safe for them and OK for me to leave the house if I got married.
DUNHAM: For you, marriage was your key to freedom.
SHARMA: For me, yes.
DUNHAM: That’s not always the case.
SHARMA: Exactly, but for me, in my case, I really felt a sense of freedom when I got married.
DUNHAM: When did you move to Kathmandu?
DUNHAM: And at that time, Kathmandu was a hotbed of political activity.
SHARMA: That’s right. And I think the 1990s movement was very successful. There were a lot of political detainees, who were released. And at that time, I joined a group that provided medical treatment for those torture victims who had been released from detention centers.
DUNHAM: What was the name of that group?
SHARMA: Center for Victims of Torture.
DUNHAM: Is it still around?
SHARMA: It is still around. There were medical professionals in the group and they provided treatment and my job was to document the stories of the recently released detainees.
DUNHAM: Were these people also seeking legal justice?
SHARMA: No. At that time, there was no legal framework for seeking justice. The detainees were released and then they were free and that was, at the time, all the justice they were going to get.
But what I realized was that torture destroys a person. There were people who I had known prior to torture, for example, who came out of prison with completely different personalities. Not only did the torture destroy the person, but it destroyed the victim’s family as well.
That’s when I really developed a determination to help people pursue justice and, hopefully, to prevent those sorts of things from happening in the future. I worked with that group for around ten years. I visited many prisons in Nepal.
DUNHAM: In and out of the Kathmandu Valley?
SHARMA: Oh yes, I visited more that 40 districts. And I was especially looking at women prisoners. When they got into prison, there was no one to follow up on their cases. They didn’t under stand the court language. I met a lot of women who were tortured into making forced confessions. There were women who had served their sentences and were still in prison for more years than what they were sentenced for. There were women with their young kids in prison. There were a lot of women with psychological problems. There were women who were committing suicide while in prison. And most of the stories were not actually known to anyone. And the stories were never recorded. The plight of these women and how the justice system was dealing with these women was not really discussed.
DUNHAM: What about the ostracism factor? Did their families cut them off?
SHARMA: Very much so. Not only were the women cut off but their children were ostracized as well. In some villages we found that the children were treated as untouchables because their mothers had committed a crime.
DUNHAM: So these women were really alone and on their own.
SHARMA: Really alone. We also found that when it came to men in prison, their women were very supportive of them. They would try to help their husbands. They tried to find lawyers. In the meantime, they also maintained their homes and took care of their children. They waited for their husbands to return.
DUNHAM: In other words, the male prisoner doesn’t usually have to worry about his children because he knows his family will take care of them.
SHARMA: Yes, as apposed to the women. The women are on their own. No support.
There was and there still is a huge gender discrimination on this issue.
I also worked with Bhutanese refugees, especially women who had just come from Bhutan. They had been forced to leave their country. Many of them were sexually abused. Terrible stories. Torture. So we helped to set up some sort of support group within the camps.
DUNHAM: When did you work in these camps?
SHARMA: Between 1992 and 1996.
DUNHAM: What was your role there?
SHARMA: My role was to document the individual cases: to record how they were treated, who did what and when, that sort of thing. And then I would refer the cases to the appropriate service providers: NGOs, medical professionals. And because there was no provision for counseling at that time, we coordinated with a number of groups who could train women. For example, the Bhutanese women didn’t feel comfortable sharing their stories to anyone within their own community, so they were suffering in silence…when in fact there were a lot of the women who were going through the same problems.
So we tried to bring all of these women together.
DUNHAM: Group therapy?
SHARMA: Exactly. They shared their stories with one another. We also assisted them in their medical treatment. Many of them had medical problems.
DUNHAM: Since then, what has been your major focus in work?
SHARMA: In 1999, I decided to go the U.K. for furthering my studies in law. I got a scholarship for my masters in human rights law. It was at the University of Essex. And that course of study really broadened my horizon. Back in Nepal, I had been working in the field and I had ten years of experience with all kinds of atrocities happening in the country. But somehow I felt that there was a missing link between what we did nationally and what avenues were available on the international level in addressing the victims. How could I use that as a tool to trigger change in my country? These were the kinds of things I questioned and learned about while I was in Essex.
And when I came back from Essex, in 2001, I decided to establish a forum, which is now called Advocacy Forum. The idea behind it was to prevent atrocities from happening.
Let me explain. When working with victims, it is very important to provide medical treatment, legal counseling, psycho-socio counseling, etc, to those who suffer. Fine. But how do we prevent the atrocities from happening? That was why I wanted to create Advocacy Forum. The main objective of this organization was to go to the police detention centers and to document what really happened there. And because of our presence there, we could prevent the atrocities that were happening. That’s what I planned to do.
At that time, however, detention centers were closed to the outside world. The police wouldn’t allow anyone to go in there.
A distinction needs to be made here. There are prisons, which are relatively open; you have access to them. But detentions center, where you are sent prior to being move to prisons – and depending on the crime, you could be detained from 25 to 30 days – those are the places and that is the phase where and when people are tortured or ill-treated.
And that’s where we wanted to intervene. And it wasn’t just police detention centers. It was also military detention centers. Remember, the 10-year conflict was at its height. There was a state of emergency. People were arrested and detained by the military as well. We had no access to military detention centers, but sometimes, the military would transfer people to the police detention centers, and that’s when we began to hear what was going on within military cells.
DUNHAM: But how did you break through and get access to the police detention centers?
SHARMA: It was very difficult. But I found a law to help us out. For example, the constitution that we then had said that every accused and detained person had the right to consult a lawyer. So we used that as a constitutional tool to challenge the police. We told them, “You have to ensure that every single detainee has access to a lawyer. Either you ensure it or allow us to provide free legal assistance.”
Yes, we were there to provide legal assistance, but at the same time we wanted to see how people were treated there. Still, the police were reluctant to help so we brought a case to the Supreme Court. And that’s how we negotiated our access to the detentions centers.
At that time, the legal system was still pretty primitive, I would say. Lawyers, themselves, we’re not prepared to go along with our demands. They thought that a lawyer’s job did not start in the detention centers; their job began only when the case went to court. That’s how the bar association regarded their role.
We responded to the lawyers by saying, “No, no, that’s too late if you are only conferring with your client after their case goes to court. The papers and evidence is prepared while the person is in detention. It is a vulnerable period for any detainee. That is the time when a detainee’s access to a lawyer is crucial.”
But there was no system like that in place. We were challenged by a number of lawyers, including the bar association, telling us that what we were doing was unethical: “You are reaching out to the client. That is unprofessional because the client is supposed to come to you, seeking your support.” That’s the way the lawyers thought the client-lawyer relationship should be.
SHARMA: Yes. So we responded by asking, “How can you believe that a person locked up in detention has the ability to come to you, seeking your help? How can they speak to you if you don’t first reach to them for help?”
DUNHAM: Were there any women lawyers at that time?
SHARMA: Very few. Very few but they weren’t sympathetic with our view. What we were doing was political work: challenging the police and the state, going out to talk to the detainees, many of whom were political detainees – arrested for supporting the Maoists, or accused of being a terrorist. Yes, there were women lawyers taking cases to court, but I didn’t see any of them supporting our detention issue.
Ten years later, I believe that the lawyers’ primitive perception has changed.
We were also able, after the Jana Andolan II [the 19-Day Revolution in 2006] to change the constitutional language in the interim constitution. Today, the interim constitution states that all detainees have the right to legal counsel beginning with their arrest.
DUNHAM: Important distinction.
SHARMA: A very important distinction. So over a period of time, the understanding of the legal community has changed.
DUNHAM: What are the biggest challenges you are now facing?
SHARMA: One of my biggest strengths is my documentation. This documentation is not just limited to cases of torture. In 2001, during the 10-year conflict up to 2006, we were doing lots of monitoring and documentation of human rights violation cases. I concentrated on the five categories of violations: torture, extra-judicial killings, sexual abuse, disappearances and the use of children in armed forces.
Initially, I had an office in Kathmandu, which was later expanded into three other regions. Now my organization is in 16 different districts. We started with just a few people, including some members of my family because we needed all the help we could get. Most people didn’t want to take the risks we were taking. But now we have a big team of lawyers – around 100 people on our team.
During the conflict, we documented thousands of cases of torture, hundreds of cases of rape, disappearances, killings – and we were documenting cases on both sides – the state and the armed groups. But what really haunts me, every day, is that despite all the cases that we have documented, despite all the victims who have come to court, despite the activities of the National Human Rights Commission – all of these institutions – not even one case has been prosecuted.
DUNHAM: Not one?
SHARMA: Not one.
Even those cases that have occurred since the 10-year conflict, if these crimes were committed by the political ones who are in power, the powerful people always get impunity. The law doesn’t really protect everyone equally. People in Nepal are not equal before the law. There are certain people who are always above the law.
Remember, the conflict and everything that followed occurred, in part, because people wanted to be treated equally and wanted the elimination of discrimination. But despite all of the promises, we have not been able to bring those powerful perpetrators of crimes to justice. That bothers me a lot. And this is what my organization is now concentrating on – especially in the case of sexual violence against women, rape of women in detention, rape of women in Maoist camps…we have not been able to make anyone accountable.
DUNHAM: Even though the press has been covering it more and more?
SHARMA: Yes. Despite the press, there has been no prosecution. It’s not because victims don’t want prosecution, it’s not because activists are not gathering the evidence – it’s because the state protects the criminals, not the victims. That’s where are biggest challenge lies: How can we break that cycle of impunity in Nepal?
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