Nepal's efforts to help conflict-affected women and girls gain a stronger footing in society may not be enough for the widows, rape victims and former Maoist combatants now tainted by social stigma, activists say.
“Because women have held guns and left their homes, because they were sexually assaulted, people won't accept them so easily back into their communities,” said Susan Risal, director of Nagarik Awaz for Peace, a local NGO working for sustainable peace.
“It's not so easy to just reintegrate… We expect that the widows and victims of sexual violence will get shunned from their communities,” she added.
About 100,000 people remain displaced in Nepal following a 2006 ceasefire and peace accord with communist Maoist fighters. Many observers believe women were disproportionately affected by the decade-long conflict and its aftermath: Sexual violence was prevalent during rebel attacks, war widows were subjected to violence and discrimination, and national insecurity led to an increase in trafficked women.
Efforts to address the problem are now drawing foundational support from two UN Security Council resolutions - 1325 and 1820 - acknowledging the vulnerabilities of women and girls in post-conflict societies and their right to representation, and the adoption of a National Action Plan, the first of its kind in Asia, in February 2011 (10 years after 1325 was passed, and three years after 1820 was approved).
Many are hopeful the five-pillar plan, if executed and funded sufficiently, could deliver prompt and free legal services, more residential homes, social services and access to relief and recovery packages for women and girls. But local peace and reconstruction campaigners predict obstacles due to a lack of support and ongoing discrimination.
“It's a big challenge of how to implement this plan and where to go from here,” said Tulasa Amatya, founder of Community Action Nepal, a Kathmandu-based NGO which supports conflict-affected women.
“You go to local districts and you see Maoists working there, and you don't feel peace and security. The dialogue in Nepal is all about politics and who will take the lead, and not about the women and the kids affected by it all.”
Displaced women who are not widows, sexual violence victims or former combatants also doubt their potential to resume their pre-conflict lives.
Tara Bhatta was forced to flee to Kathmandu from her village of Baitadi in the far west in 2002 after Maoist demands became intolerable. Her father-in-law was in the army and Maoist fighters frequently made threats and demanded arms, food and a place to stay. Bhatta, 28, says they were also physically violent.
The violence intensified when she refused to join the Maoists. Female fighters made up 30-40 percent of the Maoists, some recruited willingly, others by force, according to the UN Women office in Nepal.
About 19,000 of these former female fighters are demobilized in cantonment camps. They are screened, based in part on the number of children they have in order to identify those without significant family obligations, as they await possible reintegration into the national army, Risal said after a recent visit to camp.
While Bhatta finds life in Kathmandu expensive and challenging, she says she doubts she will be able to reclaim her house in the west with her husband and two young sons. She has heard little about the Action Plan and did not seem certain about how much support it could provide.
“Of course if there is a chance, we will happily return. It is very hard to survive here. But I'm very skeptical we could do that,” said Bhatta.
Several years ago her husband was barred from the house by Maoists still occupying the surrounding land, even after the ceasefire.
She has not received a one-off government financial compensation package for conflict-affected people, which amounts to around US$350 depending on the person's circumstances. Many others like Bhatta had not received any aid yet, said Sangeeta Thapa, UN Women's programme coordinator in Nepal.
“Women don't have the proper information or the means to go to Kathmandu,” Thapa said of why few people have accessed the compensation packages. “It's a politically biased process.”
An orphan of the conflict, Jamuna Tamang, now 19, has not received any compensation package either, and says that even with its aid, she and her twin sister might not be able to reclaim their abandoned house in Kathmandu. They left when they were seven, after their father was kidnapped and they could not care for themselves alone.
“We were very young when our father [a teacher] was kidnapped by the Maoists and killed and were lucky because our aunt took us in,” Tamang explained. “That is our land, but maybe we are too young to go and take it back.”
The National Action Plan, which is still being budgeted, will be implemented over the next five years.