The rape and murder of a teenager provoked unprecedented protests in conservative Nepal, but activists say a #MeToo reckoning such as that unfolding in neighboring India remains a distant prospect.
Thousands poured onto the streets after 13-year-old Nirmala Pant’s body was discovered in July angered by allegations that the police were protecting the perpetrators.
Two hashtags — #JusticeForNirmala and #RageAgainstRape — have become the rallying cries for protesters fed up with Nepal’s woeful record of prosecuting cases of violence against women, but #MeToo has been largely absent from the ongoing debate.
Those fighting for change say women still struggle to speak out against their abusers in Nepal.
“I would love a society where you can say #MeToo,” women’s rights activist Hima Bista said.
Over the past few weeks the #MeToo movement in neighboring India has gathered pace, a year after the hashtag first went viral.
The allegations by Bollywood star Tanushree Dutta against a fellow actor emboldened a wave of women in India to tell their own stories.
Former Indian minister of state for external affairs M.J. Akbar resigned this month after at least 20 women accused him of sexual harassment. A prominent Bollywood director was also sacked over similar allegations.
The shock waves have not gone unnoticed in Nepal, which shares strong cultural and religious ties with its influential neighbor.
“You see a slight breeze come through,” Bista said of the ripple effect from India.
In the past two weeks, a handful of women have gone public with #MeToo stories in Nepal, including two accusing former Kathmandu mayor Keshav Sthapit of abusing his power.
“Nepal also has serial predators who have been misusing their powers and positions,” wrote Rashmila Prajapati, who says she lost her job in Sthapit’s office 15 years ago after she rejected his sexual advances.
Sthapit has denied the allegations, describing them as “a rape of men’s rights” in an interview with the Kathmandu Post.
However, for most women in Nepal, particularly those in conservative rural communities, speaking out is not an option, said Mohna Ansari, a member of the Nepalese National Human Rights Commission.
She is supporting two rape victims who brought their cases to court — a rare achievement in itself — but have been driven from their communities by gossip, a byproduct of speaking out about sexual violence.
“They are now both hiding in a shelter. The stigma and victim blaming is still too strong in our society,” Ansari said.
Change needs to come from the top, but the government’s response to Pant’s killing, the botched investigation and the ensuing protests has invoked outrage and derision.
The parliament passed a ban on pornography saying it would curb violence against women, while the Nepalese home minister blamed rape on capitalism.
He also said that the #RageAgainstRape movement was a conspiracy aimed at toppling Nepal’s communist-led government.
There have been small signs of progress: Official figures show 479 complaints of rape and attempted rape were made from July to September this year — more than the total number of cases filed between 2008 and 2009.
In 2016 and last year, 1,131 rapes were reported to police, but only a tiny fraction ended up in court.
Sexual violence is making news too. An acid attack on two sisters by a jilted suitor late last month and the gang rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl dominated headlines for days.
However, activists say the sensationalist coverage and gratuitous detail paints women as weak victims, undermining their ability to call out their abusers.
“Once we address the culture, then you have space for #MeToo,” Bista said.
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