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October 5, 2012 / Man in the Mirror

The Tri-City News: COLUMN: Rallying for peace and rights in Kathmandu

By Tanya Lee – The Tri-City News
Published: October 04, 2012 2:00 PM 
Updated: October 04, 2012 2:16 PM

On Sept. 21, I marched down the streets of Kathmanduwith a banner and a police escort. A mob of human rights defenders surrounded me, including participants from 32 not-for-profit organizations. Enthusiastic arms waved signs at passersby, proclaiming “Peace is possible” and  “End violence against women” and “Ensure justice for all.”

Women’s Rehabilitation Centre Nepal (WOREC), the organization hosting my internship, organized the rally to celebrate the 31st annual International Day of Peace. Matching WOREC t-shirts were distributed and donned over saris and skinny jeans alike as women and men of all ages took up the day’s rallying cries.

As traversing a street in Kathmandu is equivalent to participating in an extreme sport, forcing traffic to stop as we walked slowly through the streets imbued the progression with an aura of power — if we can stop traffic in Kathmandu, we can do anything.

As a new republic, the concept of peace has particular relevance for Nepal. Less than six years have elapsed since peace treaties officially ended the decade-long armed conflict between Maoist insurgents and government forces.

For many women, however, the advent of peace did not coincide with freedom from societal and familial violence. They suffer disproportionately from poverty; food insecurity; lack of sustainable livelihood options; domestic violence; human trafficking; and horrific reproductive health issues such as uterine prolapse and obstetric fistula. The United Nations reported in 2009 that the Nepali gross national income of U.S.$441 per capita was almost 89 times lower than that in Canada. Compound poverty with caste-based discrimination or “squatter-stigma” and you end up with some very vulnerable communities.

The day before the rally, a human rights exhibition was held to highlight these issues. The event opened with the keynote speakers tossing coloured powder into the crowd, raining flecks of pink, blue, purple, white, green, orange and red onto the faces, clothes and hair of the closest audience members. I felt like I had wandered into a Skittles commercial. In addition to producing a rainbow-coloured crowd, the ritual symbolizes the spread of happiness.

Interwoven throughout the day’s speeches were youth groups performing traditional and modern dance routines, incorporating elements of narrative and drama. Fake blood and melodramatic screams added to the entertainment value of an otherwise serious and emotional event.

As a Canadian, two experiences in particular left me reeling.

One was finding out that Nepali not-for-profit organizations have formed in response to the problem of witch-hunts and the urgent need to protect the women accused of being “witches” from physical violence and even murder. When I think of witch-hunts, I picture 17th century Massachusetts, not modern Nepal, where people wear Angry Birds t-shirts and carry Blackberry phones.

The second-head spinning experience was discovering that the women working for human rights-based organizations have themselves become the targets of violence, prompting campaigns for the protection of women human rights defenders. The good news is that the continuation of public events such as Peace Day rallies and exhibitions suggests that bully tactics have not weakened the resolve of these women.

With the November elections quickly approaching here, all organizations engaged in advocacy have increased motivation to draw attention to the causes they fight for. With a new, permanent constitution on the post-election menu, organizations such as the ones I rallied beside last month hope to influence the future of human rights in Nepal. 

Tanya Lee, 26, grew up in Coquitlam, where she attended Hillcrest middle school and Centennial secondary, and where her family still lives. She’s contributing a column to The Tri-City News about her work with a human rights NGO.

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