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NEPAL: Women and Children Count too, in Maoist Camps

Marty Logan

KATHMANDU, Jan 10 2007 (IPS) - United Nations monitors will begin counting weapons and soldiers of the Maoist army in camps across Nepal next week, and activists are concerned that the needs of women and children there could be overlooked.

About 35 of a planned force of nearly 200 UN monitors will be joined in the exercise by 111 former Ghurkha soldiers, Nepalis who served in the British or Indian armies. The latter will work until the full UN contingent arrives later this spring.

The monitoring follows the peace agreement signed between the Nepal government and the former rebels in November, which ended months of negotiations between mainstream political parties and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), who had teamed up to unseat King Gyanendra in April’s ‘people’s movement’. Besides monitoring arms and armies, the UN has also agreed to scrutinise human rights in the country and help prepare for constituent assembly elections scheduled for June.

Seven main camps and 21 satellite camps are being set up to hold roughly 15,000 Maoist fighters from the decade-long insurgency that left 14,000 dead, scattered tens of thousands of villagers around the country and beyond, and cast a dark cloud over the battleground of rural Nepal. The Nepal Army will assign a corresponding number of soldiers and their weapons to barracks during a transition period that is expected to end after the constituent assembly drafts a permanent constitution.

An interim constitution is scheduled to be approved by the house of representatives Monday, the same day that 73 Maoist members will take their seats in the temporary government that will serve until the June polls. Jan. 15 is also when monitors will begin registering weapons in the camps. An initial group is inspecting some of those cantonments this week.

“We have told the government and the UN that the monitors need basic training on child rights and basic childhood development,” says activist Gauri Pradhan, president of Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Centre (CWIN).

CWIN is part of a coalition of groups, including Save the Children and local offices of the UN’s children fund and humanitarian affairs office, which has inspected the camps in recent days independent of the UN arms monitors.

“Certainly we have observed the involvement of children,” Pradhan told IPS in a telephone interview. “There are not enough facilities for those children, and there is not proper child care. There are also boys and girls who claim they are not part of the combat force but say they are associated with them doing other types of work – collecting firewood, working in the kitchen, etc. But our observers got information that they were (part of the combat force).”

Prior to the camps being set up in November, reports mushroomed of Maoist cadres abducting youths, including minors, for the camps. It was said the rebels wanted to increase their numbers in order to get more benefits from the government. But Maoist leaders said they were simply hiring political workers.

Activists who visited the camp on a separate inspection mission in December also said they did not see any minors who appeared to be soldiers. Overall, conditions were very poor, said civil society leader Padma Ratna Tuladhar. “There was no drinking water or electricity, the roads were not very good, even the food was not satisfactory,” he told IPS. In one camp the Maoists slept in tents that were “suffocatingly hot” in daytime and dripped water at night, he added.

Hundreds of former rebels, including pregnant women, fell sick soon after the camps were established, at the dawn of winter. Initial stocks of medicines ran out quickly.

“In one camp the women were saying that there were some illiterates among them, or those who had studied just to class four, so there should be some schools for them. They also asked about skills training,” added Tuladhar.

“The government, Maoists and the international community should decide what kind of camps that they should have,” he said, suggesting the former rebels could be there as long as two years. “It would be impossible to stay that long under (current) conditions,” added Tuladhar.

Nepal’s UN chief Matthew Kahane recently urged the government and Maoists to integrate women into planning the camps. “We would like to highlight the concern that the needs of female ex-combatants, supporters and dependents be taken into consideration. Any transition plan for Nepal will not be effective without women’s and young girls’ inclusion in the design, delivery and evaluation of all cantonment and reintegration related plans,” he said in a statement.

CWIN’s concern, said Pradhan, “is not only to expose the reality but also to follow up with reintegration.” For three years, the organisation has been working with children in west Nepal who were orphaned by the conflict. “Our major concerns are psycho-social counselling, early childhood care and taking the children out of the camps,” he added.

According to CWIN, during the 10-year conflict 419 innocent children (295 boys and 124 girls) were killed, 454 children (272 boys, 128 girls and 54 unknown) were physically injured, and 29,244 children and their teachers were “abducted” by Maoists for “people’s education training” while 230 children were arrested by state security forces.

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