Former female Maoist combatants in Nepal are facing a new fight - reintegrating into their communities and returning to civilian life, specialists say. Female combatants made up a sizable portion of the Maoist's military wing, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), with the party saying a third of the soldiers were women.
Nearly 1,000 women were among 3,000 former child soldiers discharged from the PLA in February.
But the women, who were treated as equals in the PLA and bore arms, are now encountering rejection from their communities and struggling with traditional female roles.
“My family doesn't accept me and society looks at me with hatred,” Rachna Shahi, 21, said near her home in Kailali District, about 600km northwest of Kathmandu.
Barely 15 when she joined the PLA to take part in the so-called “People's War” - a conflict which left 13,000 dead and thousands more injured - life for her since being discharg
ed has been difficult.
Not only did her family in Dailekh District, 500km northwest of Kathmandu, prevent her from entering the house, neighbours demanded she leave the village for good.
“I don't know how I will survive now and where to live,” said Shahi.
Struggle for equality
Women in Nepal face ingrained discrimination because of the country's traditionally patriarchal nature, and can be further disadvantaged depending on their caste, ethnicity and geographic location, according to the UN.
Despite recent efforts to address gender inequality through legislation, women are deeply limited in areas such as asset and property ownership, inheritance, income and employment conditions and political representation, as documented by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
Maoist policy includes plans for social and cultural reform, including the end of discrimination in caste, ethnicity and gender, and former female fighters say they were attracted to the party by the prospect of ending social inequities.
“We hoped to dismantle the old society and replace [it] with a new progressive society that respects equal rights of women,” said Shanta Karki, a female ex-combatant.
Yet, instead of achieving equal status, ex-fighters are now confronted by expectations they will once again assume subservient roles, where they are largely confined to household work, activists say.
“Society has barely changed when it comes to women's roles. They are still expected to play their traditional role as merely a wife, sister or daughter-in-law,” said gender activist Babita Basnet.
The Maoists had a surprise victory in the country's 2008 election and emerged as the largest party in parliament, a win analysts said was due to support from marginalized communities, including the lowest Dalit caste, and the electorate's desire for change.
Nevertheless, many people still hold bitter memories of the conflict in which Maoists killed people and left others disabled - and communities have yet to be advised on how to deal with returnees.
“The mainstream Nepali community is still in a retaliatory state of mind because many of them suffered at the hands of these Maoist soldiers during the armed conflict,” psychosocial expert Navaraj Upadhyaya of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) Nepal, one of the country's leading psychosocial organizations, told IRIN.
Rejection of the ex-combatants by some Nepalese is also due to their perceived association with the continuing Maoist goal of eliminating the traditional Nepali caste system.
During their time as soldiers, many women married outside their caste, and without their families' consent, making their acceptance into the community at a later date all the more difficult.
Perceptions of family honour and sexual purity are an additional hurdle. Many families believe that while their daughters were on the battlefield, they were with other men outside marriage - something that could bring shame on their family.
To address this, aid workers working closely with female Maoist ex-combatants say counselling to help the women reintegrate should be given top priority: The former fighters need more than government or UN help to become economically independent, they say.
“Counselling was needed prior to their discharge but we didn't have any access to the soldiers in the camps,” said TPO's Upadhyaya.
TPO had proposed setting up a counselling programme inside the camps, but its offer was turned down by Maoist leaders, who told TPO their soldiers did not need counselling, he claimed.
Some say a fresh approach is needed to help the women reintegrate.
“A holistic approach is needed to help their proper rehabilitation and reintegration. [They] have specific needs and face more difficulties than the male [ex-]combatants,” said Jamuna Poudel, programme director of the Centre for Victims of Torture (CVICT), a local NGO specializing in the counselling of conflict victims.
Many former female soldiers have reproductive health problems, face gender-based violence, need support for their children and are less likely to find jobs than their male counterparts, she said.
“They have witnessed and engaged in a lot of violence… All they knew was how to hold a gun and fight. Now suddenly they are on the street alone. We have to be really concerned about their state of mind,” said Anup Poudel, a psychosocial counselling expert at CVICT [no relation of Jamuna].