KATHMANDU: Striking images of young women in fatigues, rifles hoisted on their shoulders and purposefully marching forward, stare back at you when one clicks on the official website of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).
The Maoists claim that a third of the 'Peoples Liberation Army' is made up of women. Within eight years, the Maoist revolution has spread from two districts in Nepal to almost two-thirds of the country. And women cadres are visible everywhere, in almost all of the country's 75 districts, as propaganda activists, agricultural production team members and guerrillas.
Comrade Parvati (an alias), the head of the women's department of the Central Committee, states that women have become battalion vice commanders and political commissars.
The daily round of news briefs of the Maoist insurgency, routinely lists women Maoists raped, abducted, disappeared and killed, largely by the security forces.
In the notorious Doramba execution style killing that broke up the 2003 peace talks, security forces shot dead 19 unarmed members of the district 'peoples government'. Six of those killed were women. Days later, 44-year-old Relimaya Moktan, a female rural health worker in the village - suspected of being an informer - was shot dead by the Maoists in retaliatory killings.
Evidence of the growing numbers of women in the Maoist movement, can be gauged by the rising causalities each time there is a skirmish with the Nepali authorities. The death toll of women killed in the first two years of the insurgency was six. By 2003, according to human rights organisation INSEC, women made up at least 159 of the 1308 killed by the security forces.
The so-called People's War was launched by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) in 1996 to abolish the monarchy and install a communist republic. Clashes between the Maoists and security forces have seen over 10,000 killed.
CPN-Maoists' chairman 'Comrade Prachanda' admitted that the party was overwhelmed by the unexpected response of women to join the armed struggle. The party propaganda machinery has capitalized on this and frequently eulogises on the exploits of women guerrillas.
Top Maoist women leader Hsila Yami has exalted the emancipatory potential of the movement for women. Before going underground she said: "The women have more to gain than men from the People's War. That is why the women, especially the Tibeto-Burman and non-Aryan women (from the lower castes) constitute such an important part of the movement."
Yami is the wife of the second highest raking Maoist in Nepal, Baburam Bhattarai.
"In a woman run subsistence agro-economy, where one in every two households is involved in seasonal migration, women form the majority of the rural community," she said.
"With de facto female headed households, there can be no agrarian revolution without mobilising women and putting them in guerrilla fatigues," explained Yami.
Also Nepal is seeing a mass outflow of particularly young men and boys fleeing the pincer of the security forces and the Maoists. Estimates of the internally displaced are more than 200,000. Maoist restrictions on movement in and out of the villages are dictated not only by security concerns but also to stem migration overseas.
The phenomenon of villages 'where there are no men' is now widespread. It is the women who become the targets of the raids of the Royal Nepal Army and are also vulnerable to Maoist recruiters.
But why are girls, who are a high-risk group not leaving their villages?
A brigadier-general of the Royal Nepal Army informally told IPS: "The boys can go across the border and find jobs in India or Malaysia. Where can the girls go? If they come to Kathmandu or go to India they run the risk of being trafficked or getting entrapped in the sexually exploitative jobs here."
Insurgency apart, some 5000 Nepali girls are trafficked annually to India.
In Kathmandu through the Maoists Victims Association, this correspondent met with two girls - 19-year-old Sharmila Gatri and 17-year-old Sangeeta Chettri (not their real names).
They said they had left their villages in eastern Nepal to escape forceful recruitment by the Maoists and were now a working in a Kathmandu bar where sexual exploitation is common.
According to Bishnu Sharma of the daily 'Rajdhani' in Lamjung district - where Maoist recruitments are large - when the rebels called for one in every family to join, families were more inclined to send daughters than sons.
Nepali writer Manjushree Thapa's encounters with Maoist girls in western Nepal also reinforced this impression.
She recalls her meeting with 'Comrade Binita' who worked in a team of 'political-motivators' in Surkhet district.
"This Maoist woman cadre had three brothers, all of them older than her. She was the only daughter. And she was the only one to leave her studies and join the Maoists," she told IPS.
"For many poor, semi-literate girls it seemed the best option available to them to escape a life of drudgery," added Thapa.
Thapa quotes a young Maoist girl as telling her this: "You see, there used to only be sickles and grass in the hands of girls like us. Now there are automatic rifles."
Maoist women leaders argue that it is the material basis of Nepali women's downtrodden status in the feudal patriarchal order that has drawn women to the party.
Yami writing in the daily 'Kantipur' states: "They are denied parental property although they run rural households on their own when their husbands are away earning money.
"When the men return they marry other women and the wives are forced to leave. If the women marry someone else, they become outcastes," she wrote. "The CPN (Maoist) is reversing this feudal practice through its People's War." But behind the rhetoric is Comrade Parvati's own criticism of the party.
"Rarely are women's issues taken up as a central theme and the party neglects to implement programmes developed by women's mass fronts," she told IPS.
"Women associated with propaganda work and located much closer to the home seem to have less opportunities for transcending gender specific roles than women in the fighting units," she added.
Nevertheless, Comrade Parvati acknowledges the difficulty of women emerging as leaders in the on-going 'war'.
"The pressure of marriage and the reproductive cycle obliges them to quit active participation (in the Maoist movement) after 25 years of age," she said.
Maoist women, she complained, face internal party pressure to get married. "The uncertainty of life makes the men insist on early pregnancy."-Dawn/InterPress News Service.