Marty Logan, Inter Press Service News Agency
KATHMANDU, Jun 11 (IPS) – In 1955 Nepal's revised civil code outlawed untouchability; in 2002 the government created the National Dalit Commission; and three years ago a new leadership pledged to lay charges against anyone accused of discriminating against untouchables, also known as dalits (the broken).
Since then police have opened just two cases for the crime and neither has reached the courts. "Incidents are happening day-to-day in every corner of the country and are reported in the media butàno one has spent one hour in jail," says Ratna Bahadur Bagchand, executive director of Nepal's Lawyers National Campaign Against Untouchability (LANCAU).
Untouchability is the practice of discriminating against those who Hindu tradition has assigned to the lowest ranks of the social hierarchy — often by shunning physical contact with the person and objects they touch.
More than a year ago, Nepal's Supreme Court ordered the government to strengthen its law against untouchability. "We watched and waited for the government to do something, but it did nothing, so we thought 'we have to do something ourselves'," Bagchand told IPS in an interview in his office in the maze of alleys just behind Nepal's newly-revived parliament.
After six months of work, LANCAU submitted a draft bill to the house of representatives May 28, just a week before MPs declared "an end to untouchability" on Jun. 4.
"The practice of untouchability will now onwards be considered as a social crime and the government will enact laws in such a way that the inhuman and discriminatory practice is more punishable," said Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Narendra Bikram Nembang.
The declaration does not impress Bagchand, whose group in 2004 declared the years 2005-2015 'Untouchability Elimination Decade'. "They support it only for show, for cheap popularity…If they want to make the country free from untouchability, they must pass a law…the whole nation is in favour of this, including the Maoists."
Neighbouring India, which is socially and culturally similar to Nepal, made untouchability a punishable offence more than half-a- century ago and also reserved seats in legislatures and in government jobs for dalits. But the practice persists in large pockets and is rarely punished.
Maoist rebels launched their violent revolt against the state a decade ago aiming to end the monarchy and forge a new society that guaranteed justice for dalits and other 'disadvantaged' groups, including women and indigenous people (also known as ethnic groups or 'janajatis').
Labelled terrorists in 2002, the Maoists forged an uneasy alliance with the opposition alliance of political parties (SPA) in 2005. Together they spearheaded the popular revolt that ended the autocratic reign of King Gyanendra in the final week of April.
The revived house of representatives has reversed the Maoists' 'terrorist' designation and today rebel leaders are openly campaigning across this small, impoverished state wedged between China and India, while their party workers open offices in towns and villages.
In just over one month the house of representatives has issued numerous proclamations. First, it declared Nepal a secular state. Formerly the country was the world's only official Hindu kingdom, despite almost half of its population of 25 million people belonging to more than 50 ethnic groups, many of which did not traditionally practise Hinduism.
Next, the parliament declared it would permit children to be granted citizenship based on their mothers' citizenship status, not only their father's. After its pledge to abolish untouchability, on Saturday the house endorsed new rules that completely sideline the monarch from the business of parliament. From today, the prime minister, all ministers and high-ranking officials will be sworn in at the house, instead of the palace.
Since the Maoists tossed their first homemade 'pressure-cooker' bombs from the dirt-poor midwestern hills in 1996, Nepal's official poverty level has dropped from 42 percent to 31 percent in 2004. But "growth has not been pro-poor — inequality has increased," says Lynn Bennett of the World Bank.
On Friday, Bennett unveiled some results of her team's four-year, 700-page report: 'Unequal Citizens: Nepal Gender and Social Exclusion Assessment', in the capital Kathmandu.
The country's "feudal governance systems backed by the culture of the caste system have been very resistant to change," the researcher told an audience of more than 100 people at a local hotel. Even after the first 'people's movement' in 1990, "the government had gotten used to discussing gender discrimination…but they were still very hesitant to discuss caste and ethnic discrimination".
The team's survey of one man and one woman in 1,000 households in 60 villages found, "In every group men have higher levels of empowerment and social inclusion than women".
(Empowerment was gauged by such things as respondents' knowledge of their human rights, how much they used local services and if they belonged to social networks. Inclusion was based on their own perceptions of their caste/ethnic status and how effectively they could access services and economic opportunities.)
But women in the 'highest' castes and ethnic groups had progressed in the past decade. The study concluded that having 10 years of education raised women's empowerment-inclusion ranking by 19 percent while group membership boosted it by 5 percent.
"A dalit with three years of schooling who belongs to a group has the same level of empowerment and inclusion as an uneducated (member of those higher groups) who does not belong to a group," added Bennett.
Among the conclusions of her study, financed by the Bank and the UK Department for International Development in collaboration with Nepal's National Planning Commission:
– Give up targeted programmes in place of structural change. "Diagnose the barriers that girls, women and Janajatis face in getting access," said Bennett; – The government should create inclusion units in key ministries (health, education, finance and general administration) led by powerful chiefs and fuelled by adequate budgets. They should review all programs to ensure they are inclusive; and – "Better monitoring of inclusion outcomes is critical," said Bennett.
Ironically, the new government announced Friday it had agreed to a 10 million US dollar loan from the Asian Development Bank to finance a project that targets lower caste and ethnic women in the 15 poorest western districts.
The deal was concluded after three years of negotiations and despite the government failing to meet conditions that include: scrapping all discriminatory legal provisions against women; and reviving the National Women's Commission and National Dalit Commission, reported 'The Kathmandu Post'. (END/2006)