In the absence of legal safeguards, scores of widows and women in rural Nepal accused of practicing witchcraft, were beaten, paraded naked and forced to eat excreta by illiterate and superstitious villagers.
Often their own neighbors turned in the unfortunate women considered to be unattractive, accusing them of having "evil powers", supposedly used to bring misfortune to fellow villagers.
"Incidents of people calling such women witches and then tormenting them mentally and physically are fairly commonplace in many villages in southern Nepal, where people are very superstitious" said Basanta Basnet, an advocate with nongovernmental organization, the Forum for Women, Law and Development.
Basnet, who conducted extensive research on the phenomenon, said at least three such cases a month were reported in the media. According to her, many incidents may have gone unreported.
Incidents of witch-hunting were rife in districts like Mahottari, Siraha and Saptari, located in regions bordering India.
The accusations and torture proved too much for the women. While many died of the beatings, others committed suicide. The survivors were physically and mentally scarred for life.
There were also cases where people wanting to settle old scores accused these old women of being witches, allegations that were readily accepted by the rest.
However, such inane accusations often snowballed into serious trouble for the would-be victims. Many were beaten up, forced to eat human excreta and some were even stripped.
The victims' families were helpless. "They were forced by the villagers to remain silent during the torture," said a rights activist.
Marani Devi's is perhaps one of the best known cases in the country as the national media latched on to it in a big way.
Accused of practicing witchcraft, 62-year-old Marani, from Simardahi village in Mahottari district, 500 kilometers south of the capital Kathmandu, was beaten mercilessly by villagers and left for dead.
According to people in Simardahi, in July 2001, a village elder suspecting a witch's presence in their midst invited a faith healer from India to identify her.
The faith healer summoned all the women in the village and ordered them to stand in a queue to receive "prasada" (sacred offering). He claimed he would identify the 'witch' by doing that.
Since Marani was the only woman who failed to turn up, she was accused of being the witch. The punishment was quick and barbaric: She was forced to eat human excreta and then beaten senseless.
Fortunately, some villagers took her to a hospital where she pulled through. Ever since, Marani has conducted a campaign against the appalling practice not only in her own village but also in other areas.
Or take Sudhama Devi, who belongs to the same district. In May last year, the 60-year-old widow was termed a witch by her neighbor Ram Babu Baitha whose one-month-old son had died of some disease.
On the basis of that accusation, Baitha and other villagers blamed Sudhama for the infant's death. As her own son, too, had died a year ago, the hapless widow was accused of having cast an evil spell on her husband, her son and Baitha's child.
Despite appeals by her second son, the villagers beat her up. But as the news made headlines quickly, the villagers were prevented from killing her, and Sudhama lived to tell her tale.
Bukshya Devi, 56, was not so lucky. A resident of Lakshmaniya village in Mahottari, she committed suicide after the villagers threatened to parade her naked.
The reason why people got away with murder was the lack of proper legal provisions to deal with the perpetrators of such crimes.
"As we have no specific law to deal with cases involving witchcraft, they are dealt with under the Public Offense Act. If the victim dies, a murder case can be lodged. But it is very difficult to prove the crime in such cases," stressed Basnet.
She, however, added that convicting the guilty could help end such tragedies in the future.
According to her, most of the time, the District Administration Office let off perpetrators of such crimes after imposing hefty fines. "We need to have stringent laws to deal with this problem," she emphasized.
However, media coverage has had some positive impact. With an increase in public awareness about such abuses, there was a silent change in rural parts.
"When the media covered a witch hunt in a village, leading to a campaign by human rights activists, such incidents were not repeated subsequently in that village," an activist pointed out.
Rights activists said the witch hunts and abuses violated Article 20 (Right Against Exploitation) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal. They also went against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.