Since the first World Conference on Women in 1975 there have been significant changes in the social and economic status of women throughout the world. This put on pressure to the governments to improve the situation of women by various means like enacting suitable laws and policies. Statistics might be pleasing to them who work on it but the ground reality has been that many of the women living in the third world are still the same as it was in the barbarian age. No substantial difference has been realized since the rigid and vicious social structures demand something more for break through. The recent story of Dheganidevi Mahato of Baghauda - 2, Chitwan, associated with killing being accused of witch, has once shocked all who believe in core principles of human rights. She was beaten cruelly and burnt alive by her own family members. The incident had occurred when one local shaman declared her as being witch and making sick to her married niece Manju, daughter of Bikna Mahato, the major culprit of that incident and also killing of his infant grandson before four years by practicing witchcraft. She was single woman, a mother of two, poor and used to crush stone for bare subsistence.
Stigmas have played a crucial role in human life since long history. Among others, the belief in witchcraft can be taken as a good example of this though it is portrayed as a character of pre-modern and tribal societies. In 1692, when mass hysteria engulfed the Puritan community of Salem village of Massachusetts under colonial rule, witchcraft was believed to be the cause. From 1500 to 1660, between 50,000 to 80,000 suspected witches in Europe were executed and about 80% of those killed were women. Burning at the stake was a common execution method for convicted witches in medieval Europe. But New England Puritan chose to hang convicted witches instead. Over 50 people falsely confessed to being witches, about 24 people were sentenced to death; most of them were women. It is a serious blunder of the history committed by the state which failed in promoting humanity. The case is not different in Nepal even in the 21st century as serial killings of women and people from low caste throughout the country continues unabated.
The rights and responsibilities and what are ‘appropriate’ behavior for women and men are defined by culturally determined gender ideologies. Cultural practices also influence access to and control over resources, and participation in decision-making. These gender ideologies often support male power and the idea of women’s inferiority in patriarchal society. Culture is sometimes assumed to be natural and unchangeable and interpreted narrowly as ‘custom’ or ‘tradition’. But culture has broader implication as a 'way of life'. Despite these assumptions, culture is dynamic and long-lived. Dominant cultures strengthen the position of those with economic, political and social power, and therefore tend to reinforce male power. Globalization also has role in the diffusion of culture, particularly of western culture. The defense of ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ is often used by men to justify practices that constrain women’s social mobility, life chances and outcomes.
It is assumed that when society enters into an era of modernity, it becomes more progressive as people act rationally; science and technology wipe out all conservative and traditional belief system and inhuman practices as well. But sometimes it makes us stunning that when we confront with such inhumane acts. So, understanding social reality is never ending process which requires rigorous effort. Human beings are the actors of this world and their mind is not yet understood well. How do people act under certain circumstances cannot be said confidently but it can just be predicted.
This is the bitter reality of the terrible society in which we live. Above evidence has once unfolded the underlying brutality of this. It is the place where poor-innocent one's life has no value and left to die under cruelty. Such events of violence against women are not new for us but just an episode of inhuman endeavor in society. In Nepal they are often tortured and killed; sometimes in the name of witch, not bringing of dowry meeting the demand of her husband's family and so forth. The series of violence against women is deliberately in action. The image of 'iron cage' like society has yet long to go in order to be an equitable society.
If any society is discriminatory to some, serves the interest of strong then that needs necessary change. Having a look to Nepali society it can be said that it is more stratified despite of countless efforts to main streamlining the marginalized groups. So, how is the real nature of the society that we live? Without any hesitation we should accept that we live in unjust society - all social means are for the protection of handful groups. We live in unequal society - large amount of resources are held and enjoyed by few. We live in patriarchal society - dominated by male and having controversial status of women as devi (shakti-power) and dasi (servant); where separate dignified existence of woman without man is full of obstacles.
Accusing one of being witch especially women having poor status in Nepali society is not a new phenomenon. Studies have shown that poor women are targeted victimized time and again with charges of witchcraft. But unsurprisingly, most of them are from low economic status and women - especially widow, old age and so on. The case of Dheganidevi is not a rare one. Witchcraft has got no validity in civilized society; so proving someone guilty of the same is not logical as it is only a perception of one's mind. It is also a socio-cultural construct which has been used as a tool of suppressing weak by the powerful. Since, no evidence can prove Dheganidevi as witch, these all are speculation made against her and poor status which rarely poses any challenge against the attackers.
Meanwhile, one has to ask the questions regarding the existing practice like witchcraft and try to seek the answers of these within the available social structure and mechanisms. Some pertinent questions maybe: Why such atrocities happen time and again? Can we do something to improve the situation? If so, what we all are doing? Despite of creating such panic in society it seems that the conception of 'witchcraft' has got some validity to take a life of innocent people but it is not fair at any cost.
Patriarchy is said to be a cause of social inequality in Nepali society among others, as it is a male domination structurally created for the benefit of men through various means. Female are weak in terms of economy, power and social status. Our social structure is men centric which subordinates women. Various means and modes of creating social values, norms and belief like religion, tradition, customs etc. are female bias. That is also perceived by women as 'taken-for-granted'. Nepali women's movement has passed its long and tough journey pioneered by Yogmaya in Rana regime. But it has yet to mature enough so that it can cover up all the issues concerned with women on the floor adequately.
Undoubtedly, law is the major force of social change and control in today's society. The notion of 'rule of law' is gaining wider credibility as it has been proved functional. However, it seems some controversial and dysfunctional in Nepali context. The black letters of laws don't do anything until and unless they are implemented as per its true spirit. For which there needs efficient law enforcement mechanism and efficient agencies through which only the desired outcome could be realized. Police, court and other administrative bodies have to function properly for making timely investigation of the cases, adjudication and the implementation of the court verdicts.
The role of civil society is not also far from criticism. They are often criticized for lacking of high-quality vision. The civil society has been involved in making propaganda rather than working on issues that have long term positive impact in society and for social transformation at large. But, the same doesn't apply for all. By saying this we cannot put all them in the same basket though there are shortcomings on the part of some which needs timely correction. As civil society has been taken as a guardian of society in many democratic societies, it should come up with far reaching vision and programs for the safeguarding of the weaker sections of the society and for their betterment. Unsurprisingly, it can be said that the civil society of Nepal remains unseen most of the time and it appears when there comes political agendas. To speak up just for political matters doesn't fulfill its duty towards society but demands widespread involvement in the entire social milieus.
To sum up the situation in a single statement is not an easy job, neither suggesting the ways of solution is possible. Situation demands more scrutiny and careful action that the nature of reality itself is complex and vague. But if we look closely at the problem, it is not beyond our reach. The problem is deep rooted in our mind set and social practices which have created more stratification in society. The division in society in terms of gender is more frightening to others and apparent everywhere regardless caste and social groups. The gap can be shortened largely through the adoption and internalization of universally established core human rights norms and values. They can guide us easily even in the state of darkness toward enlightenment and humanity. Now the time is for doing something concrete to meet the need. At this outset, women should be made aware of their rights so that they can go for justice in case of violation of their human rights. Here victim must know that how their 'right to life' is non-violable by others and the level of punishment that can stop perpetrator(s) from doing such inhuman deed in future. Hence, government should protect people's 'right to life' as ensured by the constitution and take preventive measures in order to stop such violence against women in the future. It must convert its image of 'compensation provider' into a 'protector of life' without any delay.
*(Laxman Lamichhane is an Advocate. He is pursuing Master of Laws (LL.M.) in International Human Rights Law at Tribhuvan University and also teaches Sociology in different institutions. He can be reached at lamichhane.laxman@gmail)