Since the beginning all I wanted was to stand on my own two feet; I didn’t want to rely on others. But the credit for this really goes to my mum.
Where I grew up in Nepal was extremely remote – two days walk to get to the main road for example. And it was an environment where if you are a girl, studying to age 13 was considered to be enough. If you can read and write, what are you going to do with more education? In a few years you have to have children, right?
My mother herself was not educated. Maybe there were certain things in her life which she couldn’t really disclose or describe, I don’t really know where she got it from, but she felt that it was very important for a woman to study and she really pushed me. When I started to understand the importance of education, I always appreciated that.
The dark side of Nepal: a crisis of rule of law
For many people Nepal is a great place for trekking, we have the tallest mountain, Buddha’s birthplace, people are very friendly and everything like that. But at the same time, we also have a rule of law crisis and huge human rights problems.
Before 1990 we had an absolute monarch; freedom of association and speech and basic human rights - all those sorts of things were forbidden. So the people demanded multi-party democracy and they got that political change with the King remaining a constitutional monarch.
But people could not really see real change. The poor and the marginalised still had no voice and access to justice, which led to the ultra-left Communist Party of Nepal, known as the Maoists taking up arms against the state.
So we had a ten year long internal armed conflict that cost the lives of more than 13,000 Nepalese, killed by both sides, hundreds disappeared, thousands illegally detained and tortured, displaced, children forced to join the war, women raped, and we still don’t know the whereabouts of more than 1500 people.
Gender and the post-conflict fight for justice
In 2006 we had a kind of revolution – almost every single person came to the street and forced the Maoists to give up their arms and forced the King to go away. But after all that we still have not really seen many changes. Those political parties who were fighting for justice are now the biggest hurdle for justice for the victims.
My journey into all of that – well, as I said before, it was my mother who really encouraged me saying, ‘Are there any women prosecutors? No. Are there any women judges? No. So I went to the law college in the district and after two years, if I wanted to continue studying, I had to go to another place.
But it was unacceptable to send a daughter to another district on her own, especially to pursue something as silly as education! The culture there is, despite all my mother was trying to do, we still had to fit in with this… so either I had to forget about further study, or get married.
My journey as a human rights lawyer
I was just 18. My wedding was arranged but my mother made sure she chose the right man. For many Nepali women their freedom ends with their marriage, but for me it was the beginning. He was very supportive, he respects women. I really enjoyed the freedom. I could wear jeans and I could cut my hair very short. My husband said ‘it’s your life you do what you want to’. And yes, I am still married.
While I was studying, there was this struggle going on for democracy. I was not very involved in politics but I knew that there was something wrong going on. Then one of my teachers was arrested and detained for criticising the regime.
When he and other political prisoners were released as part of a deal, I joined a group of medical professionals working for the treatment of these people, because they were in need of volunteers who could document the cases.
I interviewed that teacher and he told me about all of the methods of torture they used. I immediately saw that he was a completely different person to the teacher I knew a year before - a bright, articulate person – now he was completely destroyed. That affected me a lot and it still pinches me today. And I thought, maybe this is the field that I could work in.
Meeting the victims of torture
I started visiting a large number of prisons interviewing people about how they were treated. I would provide them with legal assistance but it was not enough. I heard so many of these painful stories, and when you listen to these stories every day there is a point when you really feel a bit paralysed. I would also have many dreams that I myself was being tortured.
The main thing that bothered me was the question - how do you prevent these violations from happening in the first place? So I decided to apply for a scholarship, advance my knowledge in the legal field and I came to the UK for a while.
I did my Masters in International Human Rights Law. Doing my Masters, I realised there were so many avenues, legal tools available to me. It widened my horizons.
Launching Nepal’s Advocacy Forum
When I returned to Nepal I started my organisation called the Nepal Advocacy Forum. The aim was to monitor and investigate cases and provide assistance to the victims to challenge their treatment.
We took up cases on behalf of thousands of victims of the civil war and helped to prevent further violations. We focused on five themes: extra-judicial executions, forced disappearances, rape of women, torture and illegal detention.
Of course, it was very difficult in the beginning to find people to be part of that. No one really believed a woman could do this kind of thing. My husband was a big support. But now we have more than 100 people working for the forum and we have documented more than 8,000 cases.
Once we started to grow, it became a lot more dangerous. Initially, I was still very young, with a low profile, so they didn’t feel any threat. But, then we got the UN involved and started demanding accountability and reforms on the basis of our solid evidence. We started questioning the US and India on their military support to Nepal.
Working as a lawyer under threat
That’s when they started to get nervous and we had to be cautious. We were constantly threatened. Our offices were monitored. We were followed everywhere by undercover agents of the then government. So, we decided to ask for PBI’s help.
PBI make themselves available when we feel we need it. They also help us to do risk assessments and take measure to minimise the risks. At the moment, they are mainly helping us with attracting international attention on Nepal’s human rights situation.
The UK government supports the Nepalese government so I come here and PBI arranges meetings with UK government officials so I can inform them about some of the realities and ask them to apply diplomatic pressure. Similarly, at the EU level. There are also some lawyers here helping us with complex cases in which high-profile military officers or politicians are accused.
We were successful in releasing some detainees. But in many cases what they used to do is to re-arrest them - from the courtyard just outside the court! So, it gets very frustrating.
A lot of pressure was also put on the families of the victims, in like rape and extra-judicial executions, some of whom were forced to retract their accusations and evidence on television, which is aired again and again.
The failed promise of a ‘New Nepal’
Even after such a big political change in Nepal in 2006 and the promise of a ‘New Nepal’, we are sliding back. Those who are in power think that they are above the law. The legacy of absolute monarchy and absolute impunity prevails. That culture is still very strong.
Those involved in human rights violations are promoted to higher positions, criminal cases against politicians are withdrawn by executive decisions and the recommendations of the Nepalese Human Rights Council are ignored. Even the orders of the Supreme Court have been ignored.
And we, who work with the victims every day, are now accused of being traitors, peace-spoilers, or agents of imperialist states, and they are trying to curtail the working space that we have. So that’s where we are now.
A haunting question
One question always haunts me every day, why despite so many cases, not even one prosecution? The victims and those who demand justice for them, have to be fearful all the time, they can’t sleep at night with worry. But those who committed the crimes get promoted and walk away freely. I think you need to change that otherwise, no one is secure in the society.
People often say I should leave the country. But when I consider the people we work with, the faith people have in us, it makes me think that leaving the country would be a kind of betrayal to the cause that we are all fighting for. In the past, at certain times, I temporarily left the country as there was no space to work, and then I would come back. But I cannot think of leaving the country for good. There is so much to do!
Excerpt of a documentary script based on an interview with Mandira and written by ice&fire's Christine Bacon for PBI's gala event in May 2013.