Dalit women: empowered or imperilled?We must ensure equitable access to resources to ensure Dalit women’s active political participation.
Diversity and equality have emerged as pivotal themes in political and policy-making dialogues in the 20th and 21st centuries, shaping the core of democratic values. Democracies worldwide have increasingly embraced affirmative action, including quota systems, to create inclusive political spaces for minorities, particularly minority women. Nonetheless, this endeavour disregards the reality that simply having increased representation does not automatically translate into effective participation. It is important to comprehend and proactively address the challenges to achieve meaningful progress.
Globally, over 100 countries have adopted electoral quotas for women, with an additional 38 focusing on minority quotas. These measures are fundamental to democratic ideals, ensuring equal participation in decision-making. In Nepal, quotas hold particular significance as they address the compounded inequalities faced by doubly marginalised women—those who belong to a minority group and are also women. Despite these efforts, the real impact of these quotas on integrating excluded groups into decision-making processes is often overlooked.
How well does the quota system translate into actual participation and influence the intended groups, or are they mere numerical fulfillments? The effectiveness of these systems in Nepal is not just a local issue. It contributes to a broader understanding of how democracies can meaningfully include diverse voices in governance if we try to understand its possibilities. It will present us with the realities of how far Nepal has progressed in translating the ideals of diversity and equality from rhetoric into reality.
From 1990 to 2006, and in the subsequent years, Nepal underwent a huge transition, evolving from a Hindu unitary state to a federal democratic republic with a three-tier governance structure. This shift, emerging from the aftermath of a prolonged Maoist insurgency, recognised and sought to rectify the historical exclusion of marginalised communities, including various ethnic groups, Dalits, and women. The intense deliberations among political parties, civil society and intellectuals during this time laid the foundation for a new Nepal—a vision of an inclusive democracy to integrate all societal segments.
The 2015 Constitution of Nepal is a milestone in this ongoing journey, affirming the nation’s dedication to building an egalitarian society rooted in proportional inclusivity and active participation. This is reflected in the law where, at the local level—the immediate tier of governance for everyday citizen interactions—the introduction of a reservation for Dalit women in ward member positions across the country's 753 local bodies ensured the election of a Dalit woman in each of the 6,742 wards. This groundbreaking step integrates one of the most marginalised groups in Nepali society into active politics. Under the Local Government Operation Act (2015), these elected Dalit women shoulder critical responsibilities, ranging from implementing local plans to monitoring and data preservation, thereby playing an important role in local development.
However, challenges abound on layers even when women are elected to positions of power—from dealing with prejudice and exclusion that undermine their authority to their abilities and intentions. It’s a constant struggle for them to gain acceptance and respect.
Patriarchy, casteism and gender
One significant challenge faced by Dalit women in politics is the influence of patriarchy, casteism and deeply ingrained gender stereotypes. It's a situation where their voices often struggle to gain the attention they deserve. Instead, they find themselves overshadowed by societal expectations. To make matters more complicated, they often need to prove themselves continually, encountering reluctance from society to fully embrace women's leadership, particularly when it comes from marginalised, specifically Dalit, communities.
To overcome these challenges, we must make a concerted effort to challenge and change discriminatory practices and beliefs within Nepali society. Launching educational campaigns and awareness programs that promote gender equality and challenge caste-based discrimination is essential. Furthermore, political parties should actively promote women's participation and voice, breaking down barriers.
Dalits make up some 14 percent of the country’s population but make up less than one percent of elected positions at the local level. Legal provisions need to be made, and political parties must be committed to the principles of inclusion and equality to ensure that more Dalits, both men and women, are represented in electoral positions.
Another challenge lies in the effectiveness of the electoral quotas introduced by the Local Level Elections Act 2017. While these quotas were a step in the right direction, they haven't always produced the intended results. They face challenges in exercising their power effectively and bringing about meaningful changes in their communities. To address this, we need to reform the quota system to ensure that Dalit women not only secure seats but also have the opportunity and resources needed to drive real change.
Minding the gap
One crucial aspect of addressing the effectiveness of electoral quotas is the meticulous examination of what is missing from the equation. To gain a comprehensive understanding, thorough research on previous elections, government funding mechanisms, and other pertinent factors is essential. This in-depth analysis serves as a dissecting tool, allowing us to pinpoint the precise areas where improvements are needed.
By delving into the historical context of past elections, we can identify patterns and trends that shed light on the extent to which electoral quotas have translated into meaningful representation. It enables us to scrutinise whether these quotas have successfully broken down barriers and fostered inclusivity or if they have merely remained numerical accomplishments.
A significant obstacle for Dalit women in politics is the lack of resources and skills required for effective governance. Evidence from the Samabeshi Foundation's report (2019) underscores the need for focused capacity-building and skill development programs. These programs should offer comprehensive training, covering leadership, communication, policy analysis, and community engagement. Providing scholarships, mentorship programs, and educational support can help bridge the gap, equipping Dalit women with the knowledge and confidence to excel in political roles.
Ensuring equitable access
Dalit women often face economic disparities and resource inequalities, as highlighted by Mom Bishwakarma in his paper ‘Democratic politics in Nepal: Dalit political inequality and representation’. Equitable access to resources and opportunities is necessary to enable their active political participation. We should develop policies that provide Dalit women with equal access to financial resources, educational opportunities, and support networks. This includes targeted funding and grants for female candidates, especially Dalit women, to level the playing field. Additionally, addressing economic disparities requires addressing broader issues of income inequality and economic opportunities for marginalised communities through empowerment programs.
In conclusion, while Nepal’s adoption of electoral quotas is a significant step towards inclusivity, there’s still much work to be done to make these policies truly effective for marginalised groups like Dalit women. It requires a sustained commitment to addressing societal norms, economic conditions, and educational disparities that hinder their full political participation.
Baby steps are being taken to make Nepal an ‘egalitarian society … by eliminating discrimination based on class, caste, region, language, religion and gender and all forms of caste-based untouchability’ as stated in the constitution’s preamble. But we still have miles to go.