Radha (seated front right) said she wants to bring change to Nepali society so that other girls don't have to endure what she went through. (Photo supplied)
While the International Women's Day movement has come a long way in terms of promoting women's rights and related activism worldwide, most women in Nepal are still socially disadvantaged and at risk of violence.
On March 8, when women around the world were celebrating their collective achievements and organizing mass rallies, workshops and awareness programs, a teenager in a remote Nepalese village was being tortured on suspicion of practicing witchcraft.
Radha Chaudhary, an 18-year-old from an ethnic Tharu community in West Nepal, was brutally thrashed in front of hundreds of onlookers under the auspices of local tribal laws.
The young woman from Deukali village in Ghodaghodi municipality, Kailai district, was beaten in front of the whole village by a self-proclaimed "Bholebaba" — a shaman named after the Hindu god Shiva — and his associates.
Chaudhary was forcefully dragged out of her home and presented before hundreds of people who had gathered to witness the ordeal.
"I was walking home after cleaning the cow shed when three girls came and asked me to go with them," she said later.
"When I asked them why and where they are taking me, they manhandled me and said that I was responsible for all of the bad luck in the village, and that I was killing husbands and children through witchcraft.
"When I denied their accusations, they pulled my hair and dragged me towards Bholebaba's place, where I was to be tried for practicing witchcraft."
Radha was taken to a small hut where Ram Bahadur Chaudhary Bholebaba, his associate Kismati Chaudhary Parbati and a few other people had been residing for the previous two months since Maha Shivaratri, a major festival dedicated to Shiva.
The two men were posing as mystic healers with the power to cure illnesses and rid the village of bad luck.
"The girls who were sent by Bholebaba dragged me to his place. I was made to sit in the middle of a large mass of people who had gathered to witness the event," Radha said of her ordeal in early March.
"This man and some women kicked me in my stomach, face, lower abdomen and back. They dragged me by my hair and punched me all over my body for about five hours from 7am to noon," she added.
"I sustained severe bruises on my face, neck, chest, stomach and other body parts. I cried from the pain but nobody came forward to stop him [Bholebaba]. He kept on repeating I was a witch and that's why I was crying in torment while those who are innocent of the charge don't feel the pain."
Radha, in blue, appears calm as she awaits the start of a felicitation program. (Photo supplied)
After Radha's ordeal came to light on social media and other platforms, the Kailali District Administration and WOREC stepped in to ensure she had access to medical treatment and a temporary relief shelter.
The brutal treatment of Radha is not new to Nepal, where almost every day a woman is accused of practicing witchcraft. The women are often beaten and sometimes succumb to their injuries.
However, her case went viral and triggered a backlash from various groups and individuals.
Like other poor villagers who are still practice traditional rites and beliefs in rural parts of Nepal, Radha's parents and younger sister had visited the self-made shaman and were told their eldest daughter was a curse on the family and the village.
"She is responsible for killing the unborn children and husbands of other women in the village. Bring her to me and I will treat her," Bholebaba reportedly told her parents.
"I never believed in such things as bokshi [witches] and I told my family that. But like many other villagers, they wouldn't listen," said the young woman, who has not yet graduated from secondary school.
Research findings on Nepal's witchcraft practice show that, in most cases, single or childless children, widows, girls and women from poor and socially discriminated communities, and the Dalit minority group, who are considered untouchables due to their lowly status, are the most victimized.
These social groups are targeted for exploitation by so-called witch doctors like Ram Bahadur Chaudhary.
Radha used to work as a bonded laborer. In Nepal, this system of indentured servitude, where parents often sell off their children to make ends meet, is known as Kamlari.
Like many others who have fallen prey to self-styled gurus and witch doctors, she comes from the socially marginalized Tharu community.
The two systems of Kamaiya (for males) and Kamlari (for women) are still widely practiced in the Terai belt of southern Nepal despite being officially abolished in the wake of protests in 2000 and 2006, respectively.
"It is unfortunate that in the name of tradition, an innocent girl is beaten black and blue. It is brutal and we need stop this from happening," said Sister Rosita, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
She has been working to restore the dignity and promote the equality of women and other oppressed people in Nepal for the past two decades. According to Sister Rosita, after learning about Radha's torture, various local non-governmental organisations, along with the Catholic sisters' organization, submitted a memorandum to the district administration.
Hundreds of people look on during a felicitation program organized recently in Radha's village to help with her rehabilitation. (Photo supplied)
They demanded that stringent action be taken against those involved in her brutal beating and emphasized the need to discourage such practices at the village level.
"Why should women have to endure such ill practices that cause them pain and humiliation?" Sister Rosita said.
Radha's case has drawn attention from all quarters, including the Prime Minister's Office.
A government team from the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare visited the site of her ordeal and met with Radha, whom they promised they would help rehabilitate back into society.
Local authorities have also provided financial support and worked to raise awareness of women's rights among villagers through the use of documentaries and other media.
Police have arrested Ram Bahadur and five of his accomplices who were involved in torturing Radha. They will be tried under the Anti-Witchcraft Act (Crime and Punishment).
As per the act, anyone proven guilty of meting out physical and mental torture to someone who is suspected of practicing witchcraft will face five to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to 100,000 rupees (US$97).
"This is the result of superstitious beliefs and malpractices that still exist in our society. It's very unfortunate that, instead of preventing it from happening, the villagers actively take part in it," said Chitra Paneru, a women's right activist and chairperson of the Forum for Human Rights, Education and Access to Justice in Dhangadhi, Kailali.
"I believe this is a result of our patriarchal society, which treats women differently and discriminatorily," he said. "It's a form of exploitation."
She said the problem is not likely to be rooted out until the country sees large-scale investment in programs to raise awareness of women's rights, and those who abuse women are brought to justice.
"The government, local groups, NGOs and community leaders should come together and work to bring about positive change. It's a gradual process but it requires all stakeholders to stand on a common platform," she said.
Nearly two weeks after the harrowing incident, Radha is still recovering. "The physical injuries will heal soon, but it will take a long time before she recovers psychologically," said Rana at WOREC.
While both that organization and local authorities are working closely with villagers and local groups to find ways to rehabilitate Radha in a safe and favorable environment in her village, the process is expected to take time.
On March 16, a felicitation program was organized to assist her. Radha was blessed by a local organization in presence of the chief district officer, police and people from her village.
"She still feels very uncomfortable about the prospect of going home," said Govinda Rijal, the chief district officer of Kailali. "But we are doing everything we can to ensure her safe rehabilitation."
One of the most pressing concerns is that she may struggle to continue her studies in order to sit the final exams next month as the memories of her ordeal continue to haunt the 18-year-old.
"I want to study more. I want to bring change to a society that treats girls like this, inhumanely," she told ucanews.com by phone.
"It's my wish that no other girl has to experience the trauma I went through simply for not believing in old superstitions."