As India’s #MeToo Movement continues to expand, with Indian State Minister for External Affairs M.J. Akbar’s resigning after accusations of sexual harassment, the global movement has gathered momentum in Nepal too.
Under the #MeToo hashtag, women who faced sexual assault and misconduct in the past are slowly and gradually coming out with their stories. India’s #MeToo Movement has impacted Nepal, creating massive awareness about this global movement. After Akbar’s resignation in India, Nepali women who faced sexual harassment in the past felt empowered to share their plights, hoping that they could get justice – and their harassers could be punished.
In a high-profile accusation, two female journalists have accused Keshav Sthapit, a minister in Province No. 3’s government, of sexual harassment. Sthapit is also former mayor of Kathmandu and now a leader in the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
Journalist Ujjala Maharjan is one of the accusers. Her story began in 2012, while she was working as feature writer for English newspaper Republica. She had met Sthapit while conducting an interview for a feature story she was writing. When she returned from the interview, Sthapit called to invite her for the lunch — which was followed by other repeated phone calls from the former mayor at night.
In a Facebook post on October 16, Maharjan wrote:
What does it mean when people you meet for one interview for a story you are doing as a journalist, start calling you late at night, not for professional reasons, but to assure you that you are now friends and that you could and should reach out to them anytime you want, and then calling you multiple nights in a row and you do not pick up their calls because you do not understand this but it feels creepy, feels ughhh, till finally, they let you be, and by that point they have destroyed any possibility of you seeing them as friends or even decent human beings?
Maharjan has also shared her story with the English Daily The Kathmandu Post. Maharjan told the Post that said she decided to share her story after seeing the #MeToo movement take hold in India.
Maharjan is not the only one leveling accusations against Sthapit. Rashmila Prajapati, a former employee at Kathmandu Metropolitan City Office, took to Facebook on October 20 to share her story. In her Facebook post, she wrote:
Nepal also has serial predators who have been misusing their powers and positions. This is high time to reveal them: politicians, bureaucrats, actors, media person, writers, businessperson…. they are everywhere. I had been harassed by former Mayor of Kathmandu metropolis and I lost my job when I rejected to be sexually exploited. Recently, I read the same person has been harassing a female journalist. It’s been more than 15 years that incident happened to me and the person is still harassing other women. We can stop this and we have to let the world know that the former Mayor and Physical Planning Minister of Province no. 3 Keshav Sthapit is the sexual predator. #MeToo.
She also shared Maharjan’s post, commenting only with the hashtag #MeToo.
In multiple interviews with local media, Sthapit has rejected such allegations, dismissing them as an attempt to assassinate his character. “I even do not know the women who have spoken against me. This is a serious violation of my human rights,” Sthapit said.
He put it more strongly in comments to The Kathmandu Post, calling the accusations “a rape of men’s rights.”
Other women have gone public with stories of harassment, but they have refused to name the accused.
On October 10, Kathmandu-based journalist Subina Shrestha who works for international media, shared her story on Twitter. She posted, “Millennium, Nagarkot. I was an MC. The youth minister then tried to put his hand on my thigh that evening. That’s called #sexual harassment. I put it away. Many senior colleagues were there, not one word from them spoke. That’s called complicity.” She, however, has not named the youth minister.
In a separate tweet, Shrestha noted that the problem is not confined to Nepal’s media sphere. “Going beyond journalism, my doctor friends have also told me about their #MeToo moments of sexual harassment they faced by their male doctor colleagues. These women have to work long and difficult hours too.”
In social media — mainly in Facebook and Tweet — there are other several posts related to sexual harassment and supporting the #MeToo Movement, but these women have refrained from naming their harassers.
To date, most of the cases reported in Nepal are related to the media industry. Nepal has few female journalists, and various reports suggest that cases of harassment are all too common in newsrooms. Outside of the media sphere, cases of sexual harassment are reportedly taking place in politics and the business sector.
Women rights activists are encouraging more women to share their stories, and more revelations are likely in the future as the campaign gains momentum. Still, a large section of Nepali women who cannot access social media and English-language media do not know about this global movement.
Lawmaker Binda Pandey, who represents the ruling Nepal Communist Party, recently wrote an article in a Nepali language news portal about the global #MeToo Movement and its implications in Nepal.
“If there is a guarantee that state would provide justice and there is sympathy from society, #MeToo Movement in Nepal will become stronger like in America,” said Pandey.
In particular, she tied the accusations of harassment to the broader problem of violence against women – not just harassment or rape, but murder and acid attacks.
Nepal has high rates of violence against women and several government agencies and NGO-led campaigns have been implemented to curb such violence. Of late, Nepal has taken some statutory and legal steps in order to curb the violence against women.
Article 38 of the constitution promulgated in 2015 says, “No woman shall be subjected to physical, mental, sexual, psychological or other form of violence or exploitation on grounds of religion, social, cultural tradition, practice or on any other grounds. Such act shall be punishable by law, and the victim shall have the right to obtain compensation in accordance with law.”
Also in 2015, Nepal introduced the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Prevention Act, which imposed strict provisions against sexual harassment. Article 12 of Act stipulates that “any person who has committed sexual harassment under the Act may be punished with imprisonment of up to 6 months, and / or fine of up to 50,000 Nepali rupees [roughly $430].”
The act has provisions establishing internal and external complaint mechanisms for victims of harassment and misconduct. The act further states that employers failing to comply with the duties and responsibilities imposed by the act may be punished with a fine of up to 25,000 Nepali rupees.
The implementation of the act, however, has not been satisfactory. Women are not optimistic that their complaints would be seriously heeded by the legal mechanisms. Thus they are taking to social media instead to raise awareness of the issue.
The #MeToo Movement has just begun in Nepal and it would escalate in coming days. In her article, Pandey shared some conversation with her friends, who have said that several cases involving high-profile leaders could come out in the coming weeks.
“If the state and political and civil society movement do not become sensitive to the increasing violence against women, the dam could burst anytime. If it bursts, only time will tell how the personality and power of some people will be destroyed,” Pandey wrote.
Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Kathmandu-based writer and journalist.