YI: I understand that your first interest in helping with human rights victims actually started with women in prison and their children, who were born in prison or who were abandoned because their mothers had to go to prison. Can you tell us about that?
Mandira Sharma: That was first time I was exposed to women being discriminated and to what extent the problem existed. I did a survey, I didn't know the problem existed to that extent. I visited more than 40 prisons throughout the country. There I saw how women were discriminated, how the family members were discriminated with them because of the stigma attached to their lack of education. And because of their illiteracy, someone else committed the crime, but women were forced to accept that. And I also saw women, I also went to prisons where women who already served their sentences but they were still there in the prisons because there was no one to follow their cases. When women were in prison no one really followed their cases and they did not have access to lawyers and their family members were also discriminated, even inside the prison.
It was like a good kind of exposure for me to understand to what extent the system as a whole, discriminated against women. And then I saw the condition of women and children when they went to prison. These women kept their children with them because when they got to prison, their families didn't want to accept them. The women also did not want their children to be with their families, so women were forced to keep their children inside the prison. So you can imagine the situation, especially for the children. So we started a program for the education of these children, rescuing the children from prison, and keeping them out of prison, but allowing access to family members, to the women in prison, and giving them the opportunity to have schooling an proper health care. So that was the first time I realized to what extent the system, the state was treating women.
YI: You also established an advocacy forum. Can you tell us more about that and its main activities? I believe this has something more to do with the victims of the 10-year civil war.
Mandira Sharma: I started this in 2001, when the conflict was at its height. The first time the state of emergency was enforced, the prime minister was sacked and there was no power in the legislature. At that time, the army was sent to the field in the name of conquering terrorism. So, every day we used to hear that so and so number of terrorists had been killed in the various encounters with the terrorists. So, I was curious to know how this encounter happened. So, I visited a number of villages. What I found was that in some villages, there were no encounters, no incidents whatsoever. In some places, people were arrested somewhere else, a long time ago and then brought there and killed there. In other places, the people were taken into custody to be interrogated, tortured and killed later on. But there was very little information available in Kathmandu, because no one was really monitoring what was going on. People used to believe what was on the media, on the radios. So I started this advocacy forum to document those incidents of human rights violations and we focused on five themes: extra judicial executions, forced disappearances, rape of women, torture and illegal detention, because those were cases that we found happening most frequently in those days. And then we started providing legal aid because when we entered the villages to interview people, to document the cases and investigate the cases, we came across many incidents like that. And especially when male members of the families disappeared, you can imagine the situation of women, because they had never been to headquarters, though it's not that far away. They could not speak the language, they didn't know where to go, where to report. On top of that, there were the threats against those who reported these kinds of incidents. There were threats to their lives. In that situation, we offered legal aid program for those families, for those victims. That was why, to carry on these kinds of activities, we decided to gather facts, so we can really tell what is happening in the countryside. We decided to establish the advocacy forum.
YI: To identify the problems, the issues. Now, are these victims of cross-fires between the two parties? Were they victims of the Maoist rebels or the government forces?
Mandira Sharma: A majority of the victims were innocent, not associated with any political party. They were civilians, simple farmers, living in the villages. They were caught in the middle. Many of them were killed because they were accused of providing shelter, or giving food to the Maoists. These were people who did not have affiliations with any political party. Maybe they were forced to do certain activities, for example both the Maoists and the army forced people to provide them shelter. There was no other choice. If you refused to obey them, you could die. So people were caught in the middle. A majority of these victims are innocent. Those who were killed were innocent.
YI: How many are there working at the Advocacy Forum, those who investigate cases and file cases on behalf of the victims?
Mandira Sharma: When we started this forum, there was seven of us. It was a challenge for me at that time because no on had the confidence that I could do the job, because it was a risky time. On top of that, no one really believed women could do this kind of thing. But I had just come from the UK because I got a scholarship to study and work there. I had a lot of confidence at that time and I knew what was developing. So I started this forum with a team of seven, but now we have more than 100 people working at the forum. And we have offices in four of the geographical regions, and in seven districts. We have documented more than 8,000 cases and we have heard thousands of victims. We have been constantly in the field and we were in the forefront in all the movements and contributed information significantly to spark this important moment in Nepal. We were the ones to provide factual information to the Board of an international committee, both national and international committees. So, initially we were very small, but now we're strong.
YI: You were working during a time of conflict. Wasn't it a dangerous situation because the government always said everything was top security. Did you at any time feel threatened? Did you at any time feel that you yourself could disappear?
Mandira Sharma: There were a number of incidents that made us feel we were about to be arrested, to disappear or be killed. Many of us were directly threatened and a number of my colleagues had to be relocated from where they were working. So these incidents happened.
YI: But were there any direct threat to yourself?
Mandira Sharma: There were, a number of times.
YI: Were they threats, or did they actually call you in for questioning or interrogation?
Mandira Sharma: I was invited to answer (questions) nicely and gently, because at that time we were the ones to be speaking on behalf of victims and those who disappeared. Initially, we urged family members to bring in their cases, but they were put under pressure to retract their information and threatened directly. So we thought, we had to work on their behalf. So when we started to file the cases, then we were questioned, gently, and then we were told that we had been too smart. So we had to be careful.