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Protecting and Promoting Human Rights in Nepal: An Interview with Bijaya Raj Gautum
Interview by Deepika Singh (JD ’24)
INSEC (Informal Sector Service Center) is one of the most prominent human rights organizations in Nepal, specializing in documenting human rights abuses, and advocating for legislative and policy change. Founded in 1988, INSEC has protected and promoted the fundamental rights of Nepali people, particularly disadvantaged groups, including underprivileged women, Dalits, and children. Executive Director Bijaya R. Gautam spoke with HLS Advocates Activism Director Deepika Singh about the current operations of INSEC. Deepika worked at INSEC this J-term, and spoke to Mr. Gautam about his path to become a human rights advocate, and the state of human rights in Nepal.
Q: Thank you so much for speaking with us on your work in human rights in Nepal. Could you give an overview of what INSEC is and how long you’ve been working here?
Bijaya Gautam: INSEC stands for Informal Sector Service Center. We have been operating as an NGO since 1990.
It was registered as an informal sector research center. We used to do research work and we first worked with informal sectors, like the cart pushers in Kathmandu. There were families who used to work as cart pushers, and they were the breadwinners in the family. If you see INSEC’s logo, it symbolizes somebody is pushing the cart. That is how we started the approach on the sector. From 1990, we started our journey as the human right organization.
Q: What areas does INSEC focus on?
One is documentation. We gather information about human rights violations throughout the country, which we publish every year. Since 1992, we have been publishing the Nepal Human Rights Yearbook which compiles information across the country. This yearbook has been recognized as a credible and important document for information on human rights issues. It covers district chapters as well as economic and cultural rights issues.
Another area we specialize in is human rights education. We are engaged with the community people to train and advocate for them on basic human rights. We do not work in urban areas; we focus our work at the rural and remote places. Where we involve ourselves is mostly with vulnerable and marginalized groups. For example, women, children, Dalits, youths who are below the poverty lines. We target them and we have a few programs on informal education about their basic rights – what are their basic rights, how can they be achieved, and more.
We also have a radio program. Every year we broadcast our human rights materials through different FMs. On that we give the information on the basic human rights people have, and also updates on what is happening in the global world.
Moreover, we are engaged in advocacy and campaign. Whatever information we receive from the ground, we go for advocacy and campaign work. If there are repressive laws, if there are laws that have to be amended, then we go for different types of interventions. We engage with local stakeholders, parliamentarians, lawmakers, and we are also engaged with policymakers.
Q: Could you highlight some of the victories that INSEC has had in the past few years?
There are a couple of issues where INSEC takes pride to achieve.
One is the kamaya movement. “Kamaya” means bonded labor practice, which existed during the 1990s. There was a law which did not give any kind of room for bonded labor. Bonded labour in our part is like, somebody takes some kind of money to the landlord and the whole family becomes a kind of slave, from generation to generation. On that account we said that there should be some kind of free movement for the bonded labor. We started that campaign in 1992, and it continued to 2000s. There were a lot of interventions made during the time of kamaya free movement, on which the government finally declared that there should not be any kind of kamaya system in Nepal. That is one story about the bonded labor free movement on which INSEC has took the lead and has become successful.
Another one – even though the law has forbidden untouchability, in practice there are still a lot of situations where Dalits are boycotted in society. For example, if the Dalit community produces milk, they cannot sell in the local market. They have to sell in the separate market. There is one very famous temple called Gorak Nath Temple. On that temple, only upper caste Brahmins were allowed to enter that temple. We assembled all the Dalits and friends, and we entered that temple. That was another success story where we think we have done a good job. After that, there was no issue that Dalits cannot enter the temple. All of these victories are documented in our archive system on our website.
During the Dalit rights movement, in some of the renowned place the Dalits were not accepted. For example, in feasts and marriage ceremonies. We made a common feast program where Dalit people cook the food and all so-called non-Dalits and upper caste people eat together. We call them as saharose meaning common feast.
On the participation of inclusion of women in every sector, previously there were only 10-20 percent of some kind of reservation. We are advocating at least 40 percent of seats should be available to women. On that account, INSEC along with other organizations campaigned for inclusive participation of women, on which the parliament made the motion where 33 percent of participation of women was ensured in the Constitution.
Lastly, you might know that Nepal witnessed a decade long armed conflict starting in 1996. During that time, we saved many lives. For example, when a person is abducted by the Maoists, in the name of spying on Maoists, we made those abductions public so that their lives were at least not at risk. Even today if you go and talk to people in the villages, they say that our work was exemplary. We have been recognized by many national and international agencies.
Q: Of course, some issues span through the decades, such as the issue of Dalit rights or bonded labor. Are there any issues that you think have developed more currently, and that you would like to draw attention to?
There are a couple of issues we have witnessed as more emerging issues. Violations against women have been increasing, in the name of dowry, witchcraft, and rape against minors.
Another one is that after the pandemic, the space for civil societies organizations is shrinking. There are a lot of issues revolving around funding due to the pandemic and war in Ukraine. Nepal has been receiving less funds than in previous days. That is one emerging challenge to the civil society organizations.
In South Asia, Nepal is comfortable in comparison to other countries in working with government agencies, but these days it is becoming harder and harder. Another one is that there are different issues emerging about business and human rights, and environmental degradation issues. These issues we have to work more on in the coming days.
Q: Could you talk a little bit about your own personal journey to being an advocate for human rights? What inspired to walk down this path?
My inspiration for human rights is definitely held together by the real-life meetings I have with survivors and victims and their bravery. I came into human rights with the fundamental belief that every human being deserves to live with dignity and respect, and I have sought to implement that in my work.
Q: A common challenge a lot of people in the human rights space seem to encounter is that of burnout. How do you handle this?
Every individual we work with from domestic abuse survivors to families of those killed in the armed conflict, gives me hope that our work has meaning in shaping people’s lives. In such a demanding field like ours burnout is a very real thing and you have to take pride in your small victories.
Every legislation or policy implemented is a step in the right direction to impact real lives. I will continue to strive towards impacting and improving people’s lives. In my over two decades at this organization, I have found that they key to its success has been a belief in our fundamental ideals of dignity and respect and recognizing that the work we do has real meaning for the people we impact.
Q: What do you want others to know about either INSEC or the human rights situation in Nepal?
We are all humans. The issue of being human and our integrity, our respect, and our dignified life comes first. That is what all of the outer world should know. We are still living. These days, our girls, sisters, and mothers, don’t know what they should know. That is the main challenge we have.
You [HLS Students] come from a very renowned university, and you have the opportunity to get all kinds of access to resources, whereas our girls and children are deprived of getting even a small medicine which could save their life. My statement is that people should know us. They can share our sorrow together. Wherever possible, we can fight.
You don’t need finances all the time. If you respect me, and I respect you, and we respect everyone’s integrity and dignity, then lots of things can change. I don’t think anyone can work in human rights without holding that the dignity of every individual is paramount and that it is our collective responsibility to preserve it.
We are a donor-based organization, but that doesn’t mean we need money all the time. Without money also a lot of things can happen. I think that every problem has a solution. I am hopeful that we will overcome from this situation and hopefully we will be talking in brighter days in the future.
Mr. Bijay Raj Gautam is the Executive Director of Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), a leading Human Rights organization in Nepal. He completed his master’s degree in human Rights and Social Development from Mahidol University, Thailand. Mr. Gautam has extensive involvement in the publication of numerous books, journals, articles and other resource materials on human rights and peace education. He has a leadership role in several transnational human rights networks and coalitions, such as Solidarity for Asian Peoples Advocacy, the ICC Coalition, and the South Asian Forum for Human Rights Education and Advocacy, among others.
Deepika Singh is a 3L student from Sharon, Massachusetts and served as the Director of Activism for HLS Advocates. She graduated from UMass Amherst in 2019 with a degree in Political Science and International Relations. She spent her 1L summer working for a human rights lawyer in India. During 2L J-Term, Deepika interned with INSEC researching the history and developments of casteism in Nepal. During her time there, she had the privilege of working with Mr. Gautam and learning from his experience.