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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

After years of turmoil the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal is starting to become more stable. Last month the king of Nepal gave up his absolute power and restored democracy after weeks of mass protests. Yesterday, the newly established government and Nepal's powerful Maoist rebels agreed to enter peace talks.

The Maoist insurgency is considered a terrorist movement by the U.S. government, and it is unusual not just for its Maoist ideology, but also for the number of women in its ranks. Reporter Doualy Xaykaothao recently met with Maoist top woman leader and she sent this report.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO reporting:

A green three-wheeled taxi known as a tuk-tuk takes me through the streets of New Delhi to meet with the most senior woman in Nepal's Maoist insurgency. She is in hiding here in the Indian capital, making clandestine trips to Nepal. By prior arrangement I meet a Maoist sympathizer at a bus stop. We take another tuk-tuk to a nondescript building. Up three flights of stairs and in a dark room a woman in her late forties sits next to a small window. She smiles politely.

COMRADE PARVATI (Top female Maoist insurgent): I'm Parvati. P-A-R-V-A-T-I. Parvati.

XAYKAOTHAO: Hisila Yami is her actual name, but she wants to be known only as Comrade Parvati. Her husband is Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, the number two Maoist leader in Nepal under Supreme Commander Prachanda. Parvati is from an upper middle class family and was educated as an architect in one of New Delhi's top institutions.

Comrade PARVATI: I did my schooling in IIT Kanpur. People there are much, very much more cultured and very educated. So every time I went back to my country I found that people there were very backwards, especially the women, you know. They were not educated and that forced me to think about my own country.

XAYKAOTHAO: In 1978 she began to read feminist writers such as Rosa Luxemburg, Evelyn Reed and Clara Zetkin, as well as India feminist journals such as Manushi. Her daughter is also named Manushi. Parvati sees her 20-year-old daughter only about once a year. It's been quite some time since she's seen her husband as well.

Comrade PARVATI: Just a year back, you know, both of us we're being put into disciplinary action by the party. So, I mean, that time I really had a good discussion with him and we read a lot of books together, and it really enriched, I think, our, not only knowledge, but our relations as well.

XAYKAOTHAO: Comrade Parvati says communism is not obsolete. She says it makes sense in the 21st century.

Comrade PARVATI: I think one thing, you coming from America, it is really sad, you know, that when you hear the word communist you see someone as (unintelligible) and, you know, someone who's into sucking the blood and all that. Let's come down to the basic word communist. What is communist?

It's something to do with the community. You become a full person when you and the whole society become fully grown and it's in a position to eat and think freely. You don't become individually free when you have maximum number of people tied down by poverty, tied down by not having existed democracy.

XAYKAOTHAO: Back in Nepal, poverty is a way of life for most of its 27 million people. Much of the countryside still lacks electricity or running water. In this village, children and animals gather at the same water pump. Nepal's economy is growing at a mere two percent per year. The tallest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, attracts fewer tourists than it used to. The decade-long conflict in Nepal has killed more than 13,000 people so far. Maoist women combatants are among the dead.

(Soundbite of insurgents training routine)

XAYKAOTHAO: Insurgents, both men and women, are training side by side in Western Nepal. Twenty-five-year-old Sumjana(ph) is a battalion vice commander in Nepal's PLA, or People's Liberation Army. More than 450 soldiers are under her command. As they train, Commander Sumjana looks on. Through an interpreter she explains why she joined the PLA at age 18.

Commander SUMJANA (Battalion Vice Commander, People's Liberation Army): (Through translator) There's a lot of discrimination existing in our present society. She actually joined the People's Liberation Army because, in order to liberate women, to fight for equal rights.

XAYKAOTHAO: Sumjana says she is not afraid to die for the Maoist cause.

Commander SUMJANA: (Through translator) My party has this system where when a person dies in war we declare them as martyrs. Those martyrs are remembered as very great and very immortal ones. I would like to be the same.

XAYKAOTHAO: This sentiment is shared by many women insurgents. The Maoist claim that 30 to 50 percent of their members are women. Some are on the frontline of the conflict, others remain in the hills as community workers and teachers.

In her secret location in New Delhi, Maoist leader Parvati says joining the party liberates women because it breaks the shackles of their day-to-day kitchen work.

Comrade PARVATI: To be sensitive to women's issues is actually to be sensitive towards the poor people, towards the oppressed ethnic groups, towards the oppressed religious groups. So it is a mother of all oppression. If you address that directly, you actually address not really your society problem, not really your country's problem, but the world's problem.

XAYKAOTHAO: Brigadier General Napal Bushan Chan(ph) doesn't buy this talk. He's the Director of Public Relations for the Royal Nepalese Army in Katmandu.

Gen. NAPAL BUSHAN CHAN (Director Public Relations, Royal Nepalese Army): Terrorists are terrorists, everywhere or not they make snap surprise attacks and they've also adopted a lot of small children from schools, and their forces have become a little bit bigger, and now they're a force in combat with the security forces, even with the Royal Nepalese Army. That is the situation right now.

XAYKAOTHAO: According to INSEC, a human rights group in Katmandu, Maoists abducted more than 46,000 people from 1996 to 2005. Most were released after attending Maoist programs, but some, including children, stay with the insurgents, says Maoist leader Parvati.

Comrade PARVATI: Children, they are in fact coming to our party to help us. And then we give them all kinds of errand jobs, ok. Right? And they are not part of the PLA force, we put them in a village defense community, whereby their job is to see if, you know, the enemy is coming or not. We try our best not to give them a combat kind of job because it's not fit. Their maturity does not allow that.

XAYKAOTHAO: Ian Martin heads the U.N's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal. He says the ongoing conflict has been marked by very serious human rights violations by both the state and the Maoist. Since May of 2005, Martin's office has received nearly 300 reports of disappearances.

Mr. IAN MARTIN (Head of High Commissioner for Human Rights Nepal office): When we talk about the disappeared we're not talking about someone who just vanished. We're talking about someone is known to have been taken into state custody. Usually into army barracks and then disappeared.

XAYKAOTHAO: The Nepalese people fear death by both the Maoist and the Nepalese army. Maoist leader Comrade Parvati says killing is necessary in war.

Comrade PARVATI: If a person in a village is going out of his way to become the agent of the government, okay, agent of the army, then we abduct such a person, give him warning. We give him enough warning and if that doesn't go, we even kill them.

XAYKAOTHAO: She asks Americans to understand the reality of Nepal's conflict. We are not terrorists, she says.

Comrade PARVATI: We are fighting for our survival. And we feel that unless we address the key issue, and that key political issue is the monarchy, it's a medieval monarchy, which is still existing in this country, that we are against.

XAYKAOTHAO: With that Comrade Parvati ends the interview. Asked if she can be photographed, she refuses, but after several more requests she agrees to one photo, but only in profile, in the darkened room. For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao.

(Soundbite of women chanting)

NORRIS: You can see that photo and an audio slideshow about the impact the conflict has had on Nepal's women and children at npr.org. Doualy Xaykaothao traveled to Nepal and India as a fellow in the International Reporting Project at John's Hopkins University.

(Soundbite of women chanting)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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