NEPAL: Women Fighters in Nepal

Saturday, September 26, 2009
Financial Times
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

In some ways, the problem is pure maths. During the 11-year Nepalese civil war, which ended three years ago with the overthrow by Maoist guerrillas of the country's monarchy, about 40 per cent of the 19,000 Maoist cadres were women. The peace agreement stipulated that the fighters would be integrated into the 100,000-strong national army – only 2 per cent of which is female, with most of the women in clerical and nursing posts. In other words, integration hasn't been easy.

Instead, the former female rebels, accustomed to dodging bullets in the dense Nepalese forest, have spent years in limbo, waiting for new lives to begin. They are eager to play a role in reshaping Nepal, but for now are confined to 28 United Nations-monitored cantonments spread across the country.

Kamala Roka, a Maoist who joined the struggle when she was 13, worked her way up the ranks and later decided to run for parliament in last year's elections, told photographer Kois Miah that “although the military fight is over, the fight for equality and particularly women's equality still continues”. Miah, based in London, took these photographs last autumn.

The women live surrounded by comrades and family. But while many are happy to spend time with their children and learn new skills, such as how to use computers and sewing machines, they also yearn for a life outside the camps. At the moment, they are only partially free: no more than 12 per cent of the total of the retained forces are authorised to leave at any time, according to the UN.

The country's newly elected parliament has been struggling to integrate the Maoists; their soldiers and those in the national army were bitter adversaries during the war and remain suspicious of one another. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Nepal's former prime minister and a Maoist leader, resigned this spring over the failure to reintegrate 3,000 former rebels into the army.

“The women in the camps were concerned whether the Nepalese army would ever accept them,” says Miah. “Although many of the female fighters are young, they have very high ranks and would not accept being a step below men.” During the civil war, female members of the Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA) shared the same rights as their male counterparts, rights they are not prepared to give up in the “new” Nepal. Several women told Miah that if they were not integrated fairly, they would have no choice but to pick up their rifles once again.

“They can't go back to their former lives, they've given everything up, much more than male fighters,” Miah says. “Nepal is steeped in centuries of gender inequality and caste system, and they run too much risk to be going back to the villages, fearing repercussions for their involvement with the Maoists.”