Violence Plagues Women Accused of Witchcraft

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KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Nirmala Godar lives in a small village called Lele on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city. Her life is filled with verbal harassment, violent attacks and social deprivation. In this tiny Himalayan country where human rights activists continue to struggle for women rights, empowerment and political inclusion, Godar says she has no rights, no opportunities for empowerment and no political representation.

The oval-faced woman, 40, is wearing the typical garb for a Nepali woman. She wears mascara on her long eyelashes and has a round tika on her forehead. Bangles clamor from her wrists as she pastes a smile on her face and goes about her daily chores. Her stress is apparent.

“It’s so hard to find peace around me,” she says. “They say I am a witch.”

For the last 10 years the villagers of Lele have accused Godar of witchcraft.

Despite efforts to modernize, Nepali people are superstitious. “When someone is ill or dies suddenly; when there are miscarriages of animals or women; when cows and buffalos stop milking; when a snake bites someone; villagers see all of these as the result of witchcraft,” says Sunita Kumari Mahato, a local lawmaker. In Lele, when maladies and instances of bad luck occur, fingers point to Godar.

Last year, when villagers Renu Silwal, 32, and Indrawati Silwal, 35, came down with “shivering disease” the villagers said Godar had practiced her sorcery on them. Time and time again when afflictions would befall other villagers, Godar says, she was to blame. Last December, villagers decided to take action against Godar and her supposed witchcraft.

Violent Attacks on Women Accused of Witchcraft

On December 9, 2009, more than 200 villagers gathered at the home of Ram Krishna, a local leader. They were discussing plans to “take care of” Godar.

Krishna and the others came up with a plan to feed Godar manure and then beat the witchcraft out of her. Before she was captured, however, her husband rescued her. A fight broke out and police were called to settle the dispute.

Attacks like these are not uncommon.

Rasodevi Yadav, 50, hails from Lahan, a village in eastern Nepal. Her neighbors too accused her of witchcraft and on December 7, just two days before Godar’s attack, and swarmed her home wielding batons. “I quickly entered my house,” Yadav recalls. “But they followed me and also snuck into my house. They grabbed my hair braid, dragged me and thrashed me severely. They attacked me and fed me human excrement on the charge of practicing witchcraft,” she says as tears stream down her face.

Godar and Yadav are just two of hundreds of women who face similar suffering every year in Nepal after being accused of practicing witchcraft. Both women insist they are not witches.

According to the Women’s Rehabilitation Center, WOREC, an NGO working for women’s rights in Nepal, 84 accusations of witchcraft  were documented between 2007 and 2009. WOREC data suggests that widows or poor women in rural areas face witchcraft charges most often.

“The cases we studied are just the tip of the iceberg”, says WOREC president Dr. Ranu Raj Bhandari.

Bhandari says that very few cases of women who have been beaten after being accused of witchcraft are made public. “Many women do not reveal the tortures they face fearing ostracism from families and neighbors,” she says.

When a woman is Nepal is accused of witchcraft, the consequences can be violent. The following cases have been recently registered with WOREC: a 70-year-old woman had her teeth broken and a knife inserted into her vagina after she was accused of witchcraft. An 85-year-old woman was lit on fire. A younger woman, 45, had her breasts sliced off after villagers agreed she was a witch. “Besides these, we have many minor cases,” Dr. Renu Rajbhandari of WOREC says.

“Minor cases” include those in which a woman accused of witchcraft is fed human excrement, says Sunita Kumari Mahato, a lawmaker here. “There is a superstition in our society that if a woman is accused of witchcraft she should be forced to eat human excreta,” Mahato says.

Seeking Justice after the Charge

Though many cases of witchcraft accusation go unnoticed, the cases of Godar and Yadav became in public earlier this year, drawing concern from women rights activists.

Godar’s husband, Govinda Godar, says his wife is not a witch. “Any claim that [she] practice witchcraft holds no weight,” he says.

Godar says she used to hear about witchcraft and witch power when she was small. “But I don’t know on what grounds [someone becomes] a witch,” she says.

As days passed after the initial attack, rumors and threats continued. While laws here prohibit violence against women, local activists say the provision is rarely enforced, especially when the woman is being accused of witchcraft. Conversely, it is also a crime here to falsely accuse someone of witchcraft. The punishment for a false accusation is up to two years in prison or a fine of 25,000 rupees, or $350 USD. Sarita Dahal, a program coordinator with WOREC says that accusers rarely, if ever, see a penalty for false accusation. “Police leave these cases for society to decide,” she says.

Yadav, too, tried to file a case seeking justice in the Siraha district, but police refused to accept her complaint. “The police turned down my application. Their conclusion was the case should be dealt with the consent of villagers,” Yadav says.

In the last 18 months, 12 women accused of witchcraft had filed cases with the local authority, but none of the cases were registered says Dahal. The 12 women have taken their grievances to the National Women’s Commission, NWC, an autonomous body entrusted with handling cases of violence related to women. However, the commission is yet to conduct hearings.

“We usually try to settle such cases through consensus,” says Tara Maharjan, an official of NWC. “We focus on rehabilitation.”

Despite it’s the tumultuous state of current politics here, Nepal has made efforts to end violence against women. As part of this, the government declared 2010 as the year to end violence against women. However, little action has been done to eliminate this century-old superstitious practice. “The belief in witchcraft is deep rooted in our society and it is one of the worst forms of violence against women,” said Sarwa Dev Prasad Ojha, minister for women and social welfare.

“Within two months of the declaration, the country saw 10 killings, 21 rape cases, 13 domestic violence cases”, Rajbhandari of WOREC says.

Despite the women’s right laws, bylaws, conventions, commissions and promises, superstition, illiteracy and poverty keep the belief of witchcraft alive, especially in rural areas, says Rajbhandari.

Today the social tag of “witch” remains with Yadav and Godar. Yadav is undergoing treatment at a local clinic and Godar says she tries to stay home and out of sight. Both women say their families have been negatively impacted by the accusations that stemmed from what they call “bad luck.” Yadav’s youngest son is not in school because of the social stigma surrounding his mother. Godar’s three daughters, 21, 19 and 16, also say the accusation that their mother is a witch has hampered their studies and their lives. For now, there is no solution in sight.