Witch hunters of the Himalayas

Gender violence hits lower-caste women of Nepal accused of being witches

Early this month, in the remote western reaches of Himalayan Nepal, villagers stripped 60-year-old Rajkumari Rana naked, shaved her head and forced human excrement into her mouth for being a witch. The attack comes as just the latest in an increasing number of witchcraft-related assaults in the impoverished country, where observers worry that the rule of law, in particular as it relates to women, has grown dangerously eroded.

Witch hunters are said to victimize hundreds of lower-caste Nepali women each year. According to the human rights group WOREC Nepal, seven accused witches there suffered beatings in the Nepali calendar month of Poush, which straddles December and January—two by neighbours, the other five by relatives. Early this year in Lahan, in Nepal’s extreme east, 45-year-old Domani Chaudhary received a beating after neighbours accused her of using black magic to cause the death of a newborn. In Jorpati, a large village on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, 40-year-old Sunita Pudasaini’s own siblings blinded her with a sickle after calling her a witch.

These proliferating reports may reflect a new awareness of gender violence in Nepal, and superstitions around witchcraft in particular. The turning point was likely the death in 2011 of Dhegani Devi Mahato, a 45-year-old widow who was stoned and then burned alive by family members. Eight people have received sentences of life in prison in connection to her murder. Meanwhile, a bill aimed at protecting women accused of practicing sorcery was tabled in the nascent Nepali parliament last year—only to die when that assembly collapsed last May.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.