Nepal: Improving Access to Justice

Although security has improved overall since the peace agreement in 2006, violence against women and girls is perceived to be on the increase in Nepal. Domestic violence is widespread including beatings, intimidations and food rationing by family members or neighbours. But discriminatory socio-cultural practices such as polygamy, child marriage, dowry disputes, limited access to property or citizenship rights or witchcraft accusations are also rampant on the local level.

These grievances are countered by a very weak response from official security and justice actors. Although policy-makers have ratified progressive legislation, discriminatory attitudes or interference by political parties in formal justice institutions prevent many women and girls, in particular those belonging to ethnic minorities, to report their cases. Victims of SGBV may often not read nor speak the language of the court and may feel generally intimidated or discouraged by the formal procedures. Instead, they increasingly turn to informal justice institutions such as traditional village courts or mediation committees. But these informal mechanisms are just as prone to discrimination or interference. Since the state has little oversight over the informal justice sector, they leave the needs of women and girls largely unaddressed and allow perpetrators of serious crimes to evade formal punishment.

In order to improve the state oversight of informal mechanisms and improve access to justice for women and girls in Nepal, International Alert has worked in three main areas:

Training Informal Justice Providers
In collaboration with the Supreme Court of Nepal and the National Judicial Academy International Alert worked with two local civil society organizations, the Legal Aid and Consultancy Center (LACC), a legal resource organization that promotes women’s access to justice, and the Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD), an NGO that works for the protection, promotion and enjoyment of human rights. Together they trained almost 500 informal justice providers on the basic principles of Nepal’s law and its justice system including international gender and human rights norms. Through the trainings, informal justice providers increased their knowledge and understanding of the formal justice system and the principles on which it operates. They understood their own role within the larger system, their mandate to handle civil disputes, and how they could complement the work of the courts in order to provide more equitable and fair justice, especially to women and girls.

Pushing for Institutional Progress
As part of on-going judicial reform in Nepal, the judiciary created a provision for Continuous Hearing to ensure speedier justice delivery by the courts and reduce large case backlogs. However, for some time this provision had not been implemented at the district level because district judges and court officials lacked a clear understanding of the procedures required to implement it and because of a lack of coordination among the different justice sector actors.
Recognising that justice seekers turned to informal justice providers even for criminal cases because of the speed of their judgements, International Alert collaborated with the Supreme Court to organize briefings for judges in the courts in six districts to discuss how to implement Continuous Hearing. The briefings resulted in the adoption of the practice of Continuous Hearing by these six courts, demonstrating that justice could be delivered more swiftly in the courts, and eventually official guidance for Nepal’s other district courts to replicate this practice.

Raising Public Awareness
International Alert has also been engaging in a broad public outreach campaign in Nepal. The aim is to make female justice seekers aware of their rights and increase their understanding of the justice system. The campaign included discussion programmes on problems of access to justice that were broadcast on radio stations in six districts and a video documentary about access to justice problems related to addressing SGBV that was broadcast on national TV and Facebook. In three districts, International Alert provided public information on women’s rights, the law relating to SGBV and justice procedures through a mobile documentary show that reached approximately 500 members of the public in schools and other public meeting places.

One hundred and twenty non-state justice providers took part in exposure visits to courts, police stations, public attorney offices, Women and Children’s Development Offices and other parts of the state justice system to demystify state procedures. Participants met with officials, including judges, and in at least one district (Banke), received presentations on how the state providers worked. The visits were also an opportunity for the state providers to request that criminal cases be referred to them and not be handled in the community.

Working with the Women and Children’s Development Offices in six districts, International Alert and its partners held twelve public information sessions on the Government’s GBV Reduction Fund. This Fund existed but was largely not being used because the local government structures were not sure of how or when to use it. The information session served a dual purpose of helping local government officials and WCDO officers understand how they could use the fund to assist victims of GBV, and gave victims and communities members at large an induction to the Fund and what women could request from local government representatives.

Excerpt from the book Local Ownership in Security: Case Studies of Peacebuilding Approaches edited by Lisa Schirch with Deborah Mancini-Griffoli and published by The Alliance for Peacebuilding, The Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.