Friday, February 11, 2011

Nepal: Compensation not enough, say discharged ex-Maoist soldiers

KATHMANDU, 11 February 2011 (IRIN) - More than one year has passed since thousands of ex-Maoist combatants were released from the Maoist army, yet many remain in need.

“We feel abandoned by all those responsible for our rehabilitation and reintegration,” Sita Acharya, a 19-year-old ex- female combatant who was only 14 when recruited as a Maoist fighter, told IRIN.

Acharya is among some 4,008 soldiers discharged in January 2010 from the Maoist party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), following verification by the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN).

Thousands of children were reportedly recruited by the Maoists during their decade-long conflict with the Nepalese state (1996-2006).

More than 74 percent (2,973) were under 18, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

They were discharged on the grounds of being minors and late recruits, having joined the PLA after the peace process began in 2006, the UN Interagency Rehabilitation Programme (UNIRP) reported.

To assist the reintegration of the ex-soldiers, a monthly stipend and education fees were provided by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Children Associated with Armed Groups and Armed Forces (CAAFAG), a working group made up of national and international NGOs in Nepal.

To register for compensation, the discharged ex-combatants were asked to contact the UN through a toll-free phone number upon their release. However, while almost 60 percent of the ex-soldiers contacted UNICEF, only 818 joined the education and training programme.

Rehabilitation package

The rehabilitation package pays for school, a uniform, and a monthly stipend of US$25. But the assistance provided is insufficient to meet living costs for the ex-child soldiers, many of whom attend school. “The rehabilitation package is not even enough to live,” said Ravin Lama, another 19-year-old who was barely 13 when he joined the Maoist army.

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Lama, who was provided food, lodging, and a monthly salary in the PLA, is unable to rent a room in Kathmandu, where he is studying in a local school, because the monthly stipend does not cover the cost of housing.

“Many of my comrades have refused to take the rehabilitation package because they know there is so little support,” Acharya said.

Stigma prevents return

The allowance is sufficient if former soldiers return to their villages to live with their families, but social stigma attached to Maoist rebels prevents acceptance in former communities, said Lama.

Female ex-soldiers face additional challenges because relatives often refuse to allow the women to return, especially in the case of inter-cast marriage, according to Acharya, who fears for her health and survival. “What happens when we get sick and cannot even afford to buy medicines? At least we should receive a health allowance,” she said.

Additionally, many are married and either pregnant or have small children, according to UNICEF. While special support for female verified minors and late recruits (VMLRs) is provided, the programme is based on parameters set by the government of Nepal.

The financial cost of packages, including stipends, has to be within the limit defined by the government. NGOs working with UNICEF to provide educational support shared concerns about the limited package.

“There is a lot of bitterness among the discharged soldiers. There is a need to revise the package,” Tarak Dhital, spokesman of Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), a national child rights NGO.

The UN did not have the opportunity for one-to-one counselling with VMLRs before their discharge. “This would have allowed proper counselling to manage their expectations,” Gillian Mellsop, UNICEF representative in Nepal, told IRIN.

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