Kathmandu: Early last month, on September 6, a 30-year-old woman was accused of being a witch by her community. The incident didn’t take place in some far-flung district but in Swayambhu, Kathmandu, the country’s capital city. Following the allegations, the woman was forcefully fed human and animal feces, all to prove that she is not a witch. There’s a long-standing superstitious belief among Nepalis that if a person is able to intake their own faeces, then, as the belief goes, they are not a witch or a wizard.
Seeking justice, the woman reached out to the National Women Commission (NWC), a governmental body established to work towards empowering women and ensuring their rights, and also reported it to the police.
A team from the Kathmandu Metropolitan Police arrested four individuals —Dipendra Kumar Thing, a traditional faith healer, Dashanarayan Maharjan, Janardan Pandey, and the woman’s own husband.
Thing had reportedly beaten the woman, saying that a witch had taken over her body. Police said that the woman was beaten by her husband and others at the request of Thing. According to the police, the woman’s body was bruised due to the beating.
The two among the accused were released on a bail of NRs 200,000 each.
Section 168 of the National Criminal Code states that violence due to witchcraft accusations is punishable by law and the culprit will have to face up to 5 years of imprisonment as well as pay the fine of up to 50,000 Nepali Rupees.
But the implementation of this law has been sketchy as the aforementioned incident illustrates. “The culprits are easily let off the hook even when the law says otherwise,” says Bimala Khadka, case manager at the NWC. She told Nepal Live Today that the entire footage of the women being brutally treated by those two men was available and presented in the court. “Yet they walk freely, which sets a bad example in the society when it comes to the gender-based violence, specially due to witchcraft accusations,” she added. “People will stop fearing the law and these kinds of violence will keep on increasing if the laws are not enforced strictly.”
Mostly, when these cases are reported, the culprits are sometimes very powerful, socially and financially, making the punishment even more lenient for them, says Laxmi Aryal, senior program and training coordinator at Women Rehabilitation Center (WOREC), a non-governmental organization fighting against violence against women in Nepal. In many cases, the First Information Report (FIR) is registered just for physical violence and not for violence due to witchcraft accusations. This gives the alleged a chance of receiving lesser to no punishment from the authority, Aryal further said.
Observers have said that violence stemming from witchcraft accusations still prevail in a lot of places in Nepal, including the city areas. People’s belief in Shamanism (Dhami Jhakri) has also had an influence in the prevalence of these kinds of violence. The custom of visiting Dhami Jhakri instead of getting medical attention has yet not stopped.
Nepal records dozens of witchcraft accusations–and violence stemming from it–not just in rural settings but also in urban areas. Who is to blame and what can be done to curb them?
This practice is one of the root causes of witchcraft accusations, and it can be observed mostly in rural areas, including some in the cities, says Bimala Khadka, a case manager at NWC. Statistically speaking, most of the accused are those who identify as women, Khadka notes.
Although superstitious belief is one of the reasons, sometimes it also involves the anger of the family members towards women, said Khadka. There are many cases that involve brutal assault or even death of a woman because she and her family were unable to fulfill their demands for dowry. This raises a question regarding the prevailing gender-based violence within Nepal, where witchcraft accusations are merely an excuse for the violence. “It is a gender-based violence in the majority, not many accused are male identifiers,” Khadka added.
What the numbers say
According to the data provided by the Nepal Police, cases of violence related to witchcraft accusations have risen within the last 5 years.
The data shows that in the year 2015/16 and 2016/17 the number of violence based on witchcraft accusations was 28 and 24, respectively. The number has increased in the years 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2019/20 reaching 48, 46 and 34, respectively.
The Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC) Nepal, a non-government organization working for the protection and promotion of human rights in Nepal, however, reports a different set of data related to witchcraft accusations.
The number of witchcraft accusations has seemingly increased within the last 3 years, including 5 deaths in total.
The data shows that the number of incidents in the year 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 is 34, 33, 63, 44, and 62 respectively. The numbers have massively increased in the year 2018 and 2020.
“Unfortunately, these are just the number of cases that are filed within the police departments,” says Aryal. “There are many other similar cases that go unnoticed and unreported.”
What is to be done
More than in the past years, people are more willing to issue FIR regarding the violence they face due to witchcraft accusations. That has had a major impact on the increasing number of cases within the past few years.
But many women still fear social ostracism if they report the abuse they face to the police, according to Aryal.
To counter witchcraft accusations, raising awareness about the superstitious beliefs they hold and the repercussions they have to face if they resort to violence is essential, but “not necessarily enough”, says Aryal.
Existing law must be fully and strictly enforced so that people will have the fear of the consequences of these acts, Aryal further says.
Also, it would be very helpful if more of these punishments were to be covered by the media sources, so that people would be aware of the laws against such acts, Aryal adds.
The NWC and some human rights organizations have been raising awareness among people regarding the heinous acts caused due to witchcraft accusations. But their efforts have yet to yield desired results.
Aryal points to the structural nature of these kinds of violence—the deep-seated misogyny prevalent in Nepali society. The ill-treatment of women has been so common in our society that people are still not willing to call these acts of violence out and take an action to curb them, she says. “This is why not all the awareness programs have been effective in all places,” she adds. “But it does not mean we stop spreading awareness among the people.”
Raising awareness may not be enough to mitigate the cases of violence, but a well-organized approach would go a long way, according to Aryal.
“We need to make the next generation aware about the ill customs our society holds,” Aryal says. “Proper education and awareness offer hope for a better and safer community in the future. Meanwhile, the existing law should be enforced properly.”
Khadka agrees with Aryal. “No culprit should be let off the hook,” says Khadka. “With the strict implementation of the law, the people and the society should be made aware that witchcraft accusations and violence have repercussions and are punishable.”