For women in Nepal, being branded as a witch can be the ultimate nightmare -- leading to beatings, hatred and even murder. Now the government is taking steps to discourage such allegations.
Sunita Pudasaini never imagined she would ever again be accepted after being accused of practicing witchcraft in Jorpati, outside Kathmandu.
Now, four months after being physically tortured in March because of the allegation, she has been welcomed back by her community. She is lucky. Often, women branded as witches have immense difficulty overcoming the stigma.
"I am leading a normal life after the incident," the 37-year-old widow and mother of two daughters told Khabar South Asia. "It became possible due to care and love I received from the government, my neighbours, relatives and human rights activists."
The government has paid her Rs 200,000 ($2,259.62) in compensation for her suffering, while public prosecutors have filed a local court case against two of her relatives, said to have been behind the allegations. According to Pudasaini, they beat her almost to death after accusing her of magical interference to prevent another couple – also her relatives – from conceiving a child.
"I had been to the house of my relatives on that day (March 23rd)," she told Khabarr. "The couple was also invited there. They all of a sudden started attacking me physically and caused serious injuries on my eyes.
"They then left me, believing that I was dead."
Having temporarily lost her eyesight due to the beating, Pudasaini said her sight is now returning.
"Second-class" citizenship and victimisation
Cases such as Pudasaini's are rare in urban areas such as Kathmandu, where the literacy rate is high. But in rural parts of the country, women have long had to live in fear of enduring such horrors, according to Manu Humagain, a member of the Nepal Women's Commission.
"Widows, economically weak and old women are often accused of being witches," she told Khabar.
According to human rights lawyer Mohna Ansari, also a member of the commission, ignorance is the main driving force.
"Women become victim of witchery due to lack of awareness, of weak law and order and also lack of a comprehensive law to deal with crimes related to witchcraft," she said.
In a February that generated widespread outrage, 40-year-old Dhengani Mahato was burned alive after being accused of witchcraft in Chitwan, about 80km southwest of Kathmandu.
Then came Pudasaini's ordeal. Occurring only a few kilometers from the country's main administrative center, Singha Durbar, it has served as a wake-up call for the government. Days later, PM Bhattarai called a meeting of policymakers and ordered development of a comprehensive law to punish witchcraft accusers.
"Taking seriously the incident in Kathmandu, the government has decided in principle to enact a comprehensive anti-witchcraft law," Trilochan Upreti, law secretary at the prime minister's office, told Khabar. The proposed law treats witchcraft allegations seriously, with a convicted punishment of up to 10 years imprisonment and an Rs 61,957.40 ($700) fine for those found to have levied false accusations.
Still, some women say that law alone will not dispel people's superstitions.
"These incidents are taking place due to ignorance of people," said Sushila Sharma, a housewife in Kathmandu. "So the government should raise the level of awareness."
According to Pudasaini, it is crucial that perpetrators be punished in order to discourage violence against women.
"Unless justice is given to perpetrators, women will continue to suffer like me in the future," she said. "I am hopeful of getting justice."