Badi women in Kathmandu demonstrate to demand their rights. Credit: Ghanshyam Chhetri/IPS.

An Unknown Nonviolent Resistance of the Badi People

Badi women in Kathmandu demonstrate to demand their rights. Credit: Ghanshyam Chhetri/IPS.

Author: Shiva Hari Gyawali

Gagangunj is a Badi-populated settlement located at the heart of Nepalgunj sub-metropolitan city Ward Number 7. Many Badi families migrated to this area from the rural districts of Mid- and Far-West Nepal in the 1960s. In 1983, around 40 Badi families owned the land they lived in and resided there permanently. This resulted in a conflict between the local high-caste non-Dalit community and the Badi community because the latter were ‘Dalits’ and some women from the Badi community were involved in forced ‘prostitution’.

In February 1996, local non-Dalit residents launched a Prostitution Eradication Campaign (PEC), aimed at displacing the Badi community from their settlement. This inspired the first organized resistance movement of the Badi community against caste atrocities and forced prostitution in Nepal. As the movement took place in Gagangunj, a small village in Nepalgunj, it is known as the Gagangunj Movement.

According to Suklal Nepali, a leader of the Gagangunj movement, “The PEC had no legal legitimacy. It was never known who was involved in the committee. Unofficially, the committee was led and participated by most of the non-Dalit civil society and political leaders in Nepalgunj.”

The members of the alleged ‘campaign’ were allowed to enter and search the houses of the Badi residents at any time. When they came on patrol, no one from the Badi community was allowed to stay outside their houses. If anyone questioned the patrollers, they would be beaten up. Sometimes, women from Badi households were forced to have sex with them. Violence was used if they refused. In some cases, they tortured women, robbed their money, ornaments and threatened them.

The PEC announced a blockade on the settlement in 1997. Remembering the incident, Manju Nepali, a leader of the movement, said, “People of the Badi community needed permission to even enter their own village. We were almost detained. When we had to go somewhere we needed to enter it on a register kept by the Campaign. We had to clarify the reason for going out. We had to do the same when we returned.”

The PEC continued its atrocities for several months, and various incidents occurred during this period. Many Badi residents were taken to the police station and threatened to stop prostitution in the community. Some of them were violently beaten and had to be hospitalized. The police detained women who engaged in sex work and demanded a large amount of bail for their release. In order to pay the bail, some women had to sell their houses at low prices.

“One evening in 1998, when Badi residents were preparing for dinner or watching TV, many men entered the community. They barged into the houses, rummaged through the rooms, pulled women out of the houses, hit them, and tore their clothes. They also attacked families who were not involved in sex work. After this event, there were several similar attacks,” remembers Manju Nepali. As a consequence, only a few Badi families remained in the community as many families left the neighborhood and moved to other districts. Some women rented rooms elsewhere in Nepalgunj.

Manju Nepali, one of the key leaders of Gagangunj's Badi Movement.
Manju Nepali, one of the key leaders of Gagangunj’s Badi Movement.

In the late 1980s, sex work in Gagangunj area received much attention from the Nepali national mass media, and local high-caste residents felt that the neighborhood was polluted by the presence of Badi residents. Since then, Badi residents were often harassed by their high-caste neighbors and the police. Before the PEC started, however, Badi leaders were arguing that eradicating sex work in the area would be a gradual process as many Badi women had no other means to support their family members.

By the early 1990s, Badi residents themselves had begun to reform their own community by establishing an NGO called Social Awareness for Education-Nepal (SAFE-Nepal). The establishment of SAFE was partly motivated by two violent incidents in the community. A six-year-old Badi girl was raped and a group of women went to the police to report the case but this incident was not filed as a rape case. Shortly after that, a 50-year-old Badi woman was also raped. This case was resolved by providing a small amount of money as compensation. Although these rape victims were not sex workers, the police refused to file a rape case arguing that rapes cannot occur in a ‘prostitute community’.

It was difficult for Badi leaders to deal with the problem of violence against Badi women. When the residents sought help at the police station and various governmental offices, they did not get any support. In late December 1997, a large-scale demonstration was organized by the PEC to protest against the presence of the Badi community in Gagangunj. People from all the 17 wards of the municipality participated in it. After this incident, a group of Badi women and men got together to discuss the problems in the community and agreed upon an organized struggle to change the situation.

A historical turn and achievement

After not getting justice from the local level administration, a 52-member delegation team of Badi women under the leadership of Suklal Nepali came to the capital city Kathmandu on 15 January 1998. They wanted to meet the Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and share their problems. However, he refused to meet them. The delegation handed over a 14-point demand of the Badi community to the leaders of various political parties.

In April, 1998 another group of 100 women from Gagangunj, led by Manju Nepali, came to Kathmandu and appealed to the then Home Minister Khum Bahadur Khadka for justice. The Home Minister promised to visit their community in Nepalgunj and guaranteed their safety. However, when they came back from Kathmandu, they were not allowed to enter their own houses. 

On the initiative of SAFE Nepal and the Badi leaders of the Gagangunj movement (Manju Nepali, Saguni Badi, Suklal Nepali, Pareli Badi, Nirmala Badi), a national assembly of Badi women was held for the first time on January 3, 2005 in Kathmandu. Badi women from across Nepal gathered in the Capital and marched in silence in Kathmandu. The march culminated into a national conference entitled ‘The status and rights of the Badi community in Nepal’. In the conference, Suklal Nepali presented a paper titled ‘The role of the government for the development of the Badi community’. The conference resulted in the formation of the ‘National Struggle Committee for the Development of Badi Community’. It demanded the Nepal government to declare the Badi as ‘sex-work-free community’, and to provide alternative job opportunities for Badi women who were still compelled to continue the profession for their living. Similar movements also took place at the local level.

As a result of the countrywide movement under the National Struggle Committee for the Development of Badi Community, talks were held between the Badi community and the PEC. Leaders of the Badi community consulted with their legal advisor and negotiated with the PEC. They argued that the evicted residents should be allowed to come back to the community and live in their own houses. They also tried to convince the PEC that Badi residents themselves wished to stop sex work in the community. As sex work was completely terminated in the area, they renamed their neighborhood from ‘Gagangunj’ to Pragatishil Marg [Progressive Path].

After lengthy negotiations, several Badi community leaders of the took the responsibility of making sure sure that sex work would not be practiced within their community. The evicted residents were allowed to come back to the community on the condition that sex work would not be practiced in their houses. In the following months, evicted Badi families gradually returned to the community. However, some of the women who went through severe violence and harassment still had to live with fear for many years after the campaign.

Gagangunj movement was the first organized nonviolent movement of the Badi community for justice and rights and the atrocities committed against them. It was the movement that inspired the Badi community to raise their voices in an organized manner. Since then, the Badi community has been constantly waging legal battles and protesting on the streets for their rights, justice and development.

The facts and figures in the article are based on phone conversations with Gopal Badi, Suklal Nepali, JB Biswokarma and Manju Nepali. I would like to thank all of them for their support.

The views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Centre for Social Change.

Mr. Shiva Hari Gyawali is a campaigner for social justice and Human Rights, especially interested for the rights of Dalits and marginalized communities.

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