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Drea Knufken – WNN Features
It’s not often that you hear about a small group of female media activists playing a pivotal role in a country’s history. . .
(WNN) Kathmandu, NEPAL: In Nepal, a group that goes by the name ASMITA — which means literally, “dignity” and “identity”— has, for the past 19 years, done just that. ASMITA has many media forms. It acts as a print magazine, a media campaign for women’s rights, a research group, a media watchdog, a TV and radio producer and a publisher of educational literature. Most important, it is a primary advocate for women’s rights in Nepal. Not bad for a magazine that was permitted to start in Nepal only because women were considered “harmless”.
In the 1980s, Nepal was not “journalist friendly.” The national media was by and large controlled by the state – which was governed through an autocratic system. When ASMITA began, with its core group of women journalists, women’s rights were just starting to emerge as a topic of national discussion. Sexuality, rape, abortion rights, property rights and other issues relevant to women simply were not discussed. A group of young Nepalese female journalists, including one of the (2005) 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize nominees, Anju Chhetri, decided then it was time to take action. They established the ASMITA Women’s Publishing House in 1988 to fill the communication gap between the burgeoning women’s rights movement in Nepal and Nepal’s public media.
ASMITA was the first-ever public media presence to give voice to Nepalese women’s human rights. Surprisingly, ASMITA was able to launch its media presence because women’s rights in Nepal at the time were silenced and forgotten.
“Anju (Chhetri) and her colleagues were spared scrutiny because a women’s magazine was considered relatively harmless. They used the opportunity to espouse democracy, and women’s inarguable role in regaining their basic rights. While using the media to promote the cause of women’s rights, Anju does not demur from also using it to criticize the women’s movement and make it accountable to the public,” reports ASMITA magazine.
Chhetri began, then, to cover topics that reached into the core of Nepalese society with subjects like language, health, prostitution and rape, sexuality and conflict.
Suddenly, Nepalese women’s issues, previously undiscussed, were brought to light. Chhetri shared information with mainstream magazines and newspapers. In addition, ASMITA publications for semi-literate rural women were created with a “picture-heavy” format to help rural women know more about current issues, sanitation and women’s dignity. ASMITA also began to publish numerous booklets and posters for women, including information on Nepal’s women’s legal advocacy and Nepalese women’s land rights.
As ASMITA grew in its outreach intellectuals and policymakers could no longer ignore the thrust of women’s issues in Nepal — nor the fact that they existed.
In 1996, the Communist Central Party of Nepal, commonly known in Nepal as “the Maoists”, started a long fight to institute a socialist republic to take the place of Nepal’s parliament. Many disadvantaged women before the war were subject to ethnic or caste discrimination. The Maoists, though, had a penchant for identifying women’s issues, promising class equality and social justice in exchange for party allegiance. As a result, they were able to recruit more than 20,000 female guerrillas — an estimated 1/3 of their fighting force. Most of these women fought on the village level and some became party leaders.
Ten years of bloody conflict ensued with more than 12,000 casualties. Women fought alongside men and were also subject to torture, imprisonment, rape and murder. During this time ASMITA kept careful records of Nepal’s women through its articles, reports, and interviews. They found that the Maoist insurgency was actually producing mixed results for women. On the one hand, the conflict was creating blood casualties and tearing families apart. On the other hand, the Maoists were steadily helping to advance women’s rights.
“My hope is that Nepali women, so far excluded from government and decision-making, will have an opportunity to put forth their issues and demands in a constituent assembly. Rights secured in the constitution and in laws will open new arenas to Nepali women for their empowerment and emancipation. Ultimately, there must be enormous change in socio-economic structure for women’s upliftment. I know that this will be achieved in the long run. Until then, we have to continue our activities for reforms, however small,” said Chhetri in a Feb 2006 interview for WorldPulse magazine.
ASMITA wrote about the issues for women during the war when it said, “Polygamy by men was considered as a matter of bravery and pride before the start of the war.” (Now) “the Maoists have stopped it not only in practice but also prohibited it by formulating law.” Before the Maoist conflict women were not allowed to inherit property. In 2001, a new civil code was put in place that allowed women the right to ancestral land. Two years later, in 2003, the right to abortion for women in Nepal was also passed.
When Nepal’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, ending the war on 21 Nov, 2006, widows and missing family members were left struggling in the war’s wake. Single parenthood, with its financial burdens and social responsibilities, had now become much more commonplace in Nepal.
So had the empowered woman in Nepal.
“A lot of change has come among women after the People’s War. They have become fearless, clever and capable of speaking against grievances. A political awareness is rising among them. The untouchability has been demolished from the village,” said Dilmaya Pun, a Nepalese activist of the Chhing village in Rukum in an article by Chhetri and fellow journalist, Manju Thapa in “Samaya” magazine 22 June, 2006.
“More than 13 thousand people have died during the decade of violent conflict. It is speculated that at least six thousand women have become widows due to the conflict,” said Anju Chhetri in an ASMITA article on conflict engendered widows called “Small Expectations”.
In 2006, as peace agreements were signed between the Maoists and the Nepalese government something was still missing. Many other women’s rights promises, still, have yet to be delivered. ASMITA reports that “the women who took up arms are hopeful, giving time for a new Nepal to develop.”
“ASMITA has been able to record almost every event of (the) Nepali women’s movement and activities for the past 12 years.” It is now using this information to create TV documentaries, radio programs and articles to allow the women and children affected by conflict to share their stories. ASMITA intends to use this documentation to “help punish the guilty in the future (and build) a nation based on the principles of justice and fundamental rights.”
Through its record-keeping advocacy ASMITA has become the most respected archivist today of Nepali women’s history. Covering education, health, employment, environment, human rights, prostitution, rape, violence, discrimination, AIDS/HIV, development policy and planning, women’s movements and feminism, ASMITA has also kept a close focus on the trafficking of women in Nepal. As far back as 1997, ASMITA knew Nepali women were being trafficked, but at the time, nobody knew the scope or implications of this. In the process, ASMITA sorted through a decade of Nepali trafficking-related media coverage, legal documents and literature to create a report called “Efforts to Prevent Trafficking in Women and Girls: A Pre-study for Media Activism” (June 1998).
In 2000, ASMITA concluded that, “The proportion of Nepali women presently involved in (the) flesh trade at the Indian brothels ranges from 5,000 to 200,000.” From this information a set of recommendations by ASMITA was given to the public media, the government and numerous international agencies.
“The main problem related to trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation is the perpetual existence of Indian red light areas. As far as the red light areas exist, the problem of trafficking is less likely to end. We found that it is not easy to abolish the red light areas from Indian cities. We came to this conclusion after the discussion with several Indian authorities and political leaders. . . We studied red light areas of four major Indian cities Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune for four months. We discussed the issue of trafficking of Nepali women/girls with several NGOs and activists working the sector of trafficking and commercial sex work. According to the information we gathered from them, there are about 500 gharwalis of Nepali origin in Indian red light areas. Some of them have very simple economic condition and some are extremely wealthy. They are the main culprits of the crime of trafficking. They utilize many poor people from Nepal to function as dalals (agents of trafficking), who involve in alluring innocent Nepali women/girls and taking them to brothels in India,” said Anju Chhetri to 70 participants at a 2005 conference on trafficking in Katmandu on the release of ASMITA’s book, “Writing Against Trafficking”.
“As far as rescue is concerned, there are many women/girls in Indian brothels waiting to be rescued. But, the process of rescue is very much overburdened. The rescued women/girls have to be kept in transit homes for 1-2 months before completing legal procedures and returning them back to their home. Because of the longer time spent in completing court procedures, and resources needed to keep rescued women/girls in transit homes on their returning, the police and NGOs of India are reluctant to be involved in rescue operations. However, some NGOs like Rescue Foundation, STOP and SANLAP have been rescuing Nepali women/girls from time to time. Usually, the women/girls rescued by these organizations are handed over to Maiti Nepal,” added Chhetri.
Today, through a seed grant by The Global Fund for Women, USA, the ASMITA Resource Centre for Women has created a resource library for women that contains over 5,000 national and international documents of interest to women.
From the slums in southern India to remote villages in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal, the new series for the Asian Aid charity organization “Hope In Motion” weaves together beautiful imagery, insightful interviews and heartwarming stories all to give an inside look of what it’s like to serve ‘the least of these.’ This video clip is the fourth installment of the CaveLight Films documentary series. It shows how ‘Hope in Motion’ traveled to Pokhara, Nepal, one of the biggest international human trafficking posts in the world and meet with two young sisters who are struggling to escape the sex trade. To watch the full episode of this story and learn more about this series, visit: http://cavelightfilms.com/hope-in-motion/
Sources for this article include the ASMITA publications, US Department of State, WorldPulse magazine, BBC News, National Geographic, Nepali Times, The Global Women’s Fund, UNESCO culture portal, YouTube and Encyclopedia Britannica.
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