Hundreds of Nepalese campaigners protested on Thursday over the alleged rape and robbery of a maid by government officials, echoing widespread anger in neighbouring India over violence against women.
Sita Rai, an assumed name used by the 21-year-old to protect her identity, says she was robbed by officials and then raped by a policeman as she returned to Kathmandu’s international airport from Saudi Arabia.
Rai was given US$1,700 in compensation by the government – US$700 less than the amount she says she lost – angering demonstrators who began picketing the residence of Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai a week ago, demanding punishment of the accused.
Around 200 human rights activists, journalists and other protesters have been holding up photographs of many other victims of rape, murders and kidnappings, accusing the government of failing to act in each case.
“The cases of violence against women came out one after another and I thought enough is enough, now is the time to act. So, I joined the protest, which was small in the beginning but is now gaining momentum,” said Ananta Koirala.
Police have since made several arrests in Rai’s case and Bhattarai has spoken of his “shame” over the government’s response to her complaint.
Mass protests in India over the gang rape last month of a 23-year-old student who subsequently died have shone a light on an alleged culture of impunity over sex attacks in its Himalayan neighbour.
Nepalese media have not always prioritised the issue of violence against women, with the gang rape by five men of a 21-year-old Buddhist nun on a bus 18 months ago receiving relatively little coverage.
The latest data compiled by the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime show 69 complaints of rape to police in 2006 in Nepal, but the figure is likely to under-represent the problem because of the difficulty in reporting cases.
The national Women’s Commission says more than 15 per cent of Nepalese women suffer some form of sexual abuse during their lifetime.