By Claire Cozens
SAPTARI, Wednesday 23 March 2011 (AFP) -- In a dusty courtyard in southeastern Nepal, around a dozen women in matching blue saris sit cross-legged and discuss their neighbours.
"I heard that a landowner beat an 11-year-old boy just because he suspected the child of letting his animals escape from their field," says one.
"In my village, there is a Muslim man who wants to take a second wife," says another, while a third tells the story of a 13-year-old girl whose father is rumoured to be planning to sell her to a man from neighbouring India.
To the outsider, these stories might sound like mere village gossip. In fact, they are part of a groundbreaking effort to deliver justice in Nepal, where law enforcement is weak at best, and non-existent at worst.
Since 1999, women in many parts of the impoverished Himalayan nation have been meeting every month to fight back against the discrimination and abuses they and other marginalised groups have been subjected to for centuries.
Known as paralegal committees, they were first set up in 1999 as part of an anti-trafficking programme run by the UN children's agency, UNICEF.
Since then they have expanded their remit to include many other forms of abuse, with a focus on issues the authorities have tended to turn a blind eye to, such as child marriage and domestic violence.
There are now 644 paralegal committees working in the 23 districts of Nepal where UNICEF is active, and the UN agency has plans to expand the scheme to cover all 75 districts by 2013.
The members are given basic legal training covering a wide spectrum of issues, from trafficking and sexual harassment to property laws and the rights of divorced women.
Their role is three-fold -- prevention, detection and victim support -- and a 2008 UNICEF study found they made a "significant contribution" to ensuring victims of violence and other crimes seek justice.
UNICEF child protection specialist Patrizia Benvenuti said the committees played a vital role, particularly in areas where the state has little or no presence.
"We hope that over time the links between formal and informal mechanisms will increase, but in the meantime we are investing in community-based protection structures because they are necessary," she told AFP.
"They are also important in promoting the role of women and children in society.
"When you talk to authorities, they say that abuses of women are now starting to be reported, although that is only the tip of the iceberg. But cases of child abuse rarely even come up, so much still needs to be done."
The district of Saptari in Nepal's southeastern plains, on the border with India, has more problems than most.
A high proportion of its population is Tharu, an ethnic group indigenous to the area -- known as the Terai -- that has traditionally suffered high levels of poverty and discrimination.
Maoist bomb attacks shut down all but two of its 114 police posts during the 10-year civil war between the leftist insurgents and state security forces that ended in 2006.
Most have now been rebuilt, and police officers have slowly returned to the district over the past five years.
But they face huge challenges from criminal gangs that use Nepal's porous border with India to evade detection from authorities on both sides, leaving little time to tackle the crimes that affect local women and children.
Official corruption is also a major problem. A recent report from Human Rights Watch said police in Nepal "routinely refuse to accept complaints from relatives of victims" and bow to pressure from local political groups to drop investigations.
Nonetheless, the blue-uniformed women of the Bakduwa paralegal committee in Saptari say they are forcing the authorities to take the problems of their community seriously.
Last year, the Bakduwa committee managed to resolve 41 cases, most of them involving either domestic violence or child abuse.
They also forced a prosecution in a gang rape case that police had been refusing to investigate, probably because of pressure from influential members of the community.
Committee members are trained to report any case in which laws have been broken to the police, and will often put pressure on officers to investigate crimes against women and children that might otherwise be ignored.
"I think the paralegals succeed because women have themselves had much to deal with in our communities, and that helps them to understand the problems faced by others," said the committee's 38-year-old chairwoman Kusam Acharya.
"This is a society in which men are heard. A woman's voice is not recognised. But here, over time, we have been able to achieve recognition."