Dalit women were elected in numbers. But have they been empowered?Despite holding posts, experience as decision makers was not encouraging as discrimination continued, they say.
When Raj Kumari BK was elected a Dalit woman representative of Ward No 6 of Beni Municipality in Myagdi, she had lots of expectations. First, it was an opportunity for her to represent her community, Dalit, which has been historically the most marginalised. Second, she hoped to make her mark as an elected representative.
“I wanted to work for the uplift of my community while I built my leadership skills,” BK told the Post over the phone from her home village. “But it looks like my election was more optics than substance, as I was made a candidate because the constitution and law said so.”
As she is close to completing her tenure, she feels she was further marginalized during the last five years.
“I thought I would fight for my community, but I myself was discriminated against by my colleagues,” said BK, who was elected from the CPN-UML . “I was not even allowed to speak in the meetings and whatever proposals I presented were all ignored.”
BK says she was kept out of decision-making processes and on several occasions meeting minutes were sent to her home for her signature.
BK is among the 6,567 Dalit women members who were elected in 6,743 wards of the 753 local units from the 2017’s local elections which were historic not just because they marked the commencement of the implementation of federalism but also because it had opened the door for the representation of Dalit women.
Election of these Dalit women became possible because of the mandatory provision in the Local Level Election Act which says one among four ward members must be a Dalit woman.
But BK’s experience tells a different story. The mandatory legal provision did increase Dalit women’s representation but society and the so-called upper caste people’s views barely changed, thereby Dalit empowerment still remaining a pipe dream.
“I was treated in such a way that as a Dalit woman, there was nothing I could contribute in decision making,” she said. “I as a representative was insignificant to my colleagues; what mattered to them was my signature.”
According to Section 6 (2) of the Local Level Election Act, prepared as per the spirit of the Constitution of Nepal, two women including a Dalit member must be elected in each ward.
But not a single Dalit woman was elected mayor or chairperson. Eight women from the community were elected deputy mayors or vice-chairs. Similarly, not a single Dalit women was elected chairperson in 6,743 wards.
The Dalit represenatives said there are several committees at the local level where they could have contributed but they were never given an opportunity.
Dalit women ward members could be inducted in school monitoring committees, education committee, infrastructure development and management committees and budget drafting committee among others. But that didn’t happen.
Although caste-based discrimination is illegal , BK’s experience is she faced caste-based discrimination at the hands of elected representatives themselves.
“They used to avoid sitting near me at the meetings but after I kept on warning them against caste-based discrimination they gradually stopped such behaviour,” said BK. “But in decision-making matters, I was by and large kept out of the loop.”
“They fielded me because they had to, by law, field a Dalit woman. I feel like being a victim,” said BK, who has studied up to the fifth grade.
Only 19 among 275 members in the House of Representative are Dalits while their number is just seven in the 59-strong National Assembly.
According to the 2011 census, 13 percent of the total population are Dalits but the Dalit community claims they are 20 percent of total population but most of them have hidden their identity fearing discrimination.
Dalit representatives say although the principle of inclusion has ensured Dalit women’s representation, in reality not much was done to empower them, as they were not given space and a level playing field.
“Dalit women’s representation became a tool to show that local governments are inclusive,” Deepa Sunar, a Dalit ward member in Butwal Sub-metropolitan City-8, told the Post over the phone. “Despite the indifference by other representatives, I always tried to become active in the meetings and express my views. However, I don’t remember any of my suggestions being taken seriously.”
Not just the ward members, even women vice-chairs from the Dalit community have bitter experiences to share.
Ek Maya BK, vice-chair of Khajura Rural Municipality in Banke district, said she was always discouraged when she tried to do something. Unlike the ward members, the vice-chairpersons have defined roles yet they were not given space to carry out their responsibilities.
“In the last five years what I experienced is that giving someone their rights alone was not important but you need to have a proper environment to exercise the rights and deliver results,” said BK, the vice-chair. “I will regret all my life that I could not deliver despite getting the opportunity. That’s the worst experience of my life and I’m very sad. I have no one to share my pain.”
Dalit rights activists say the represention proved mere tokenism because of the discriminatory mindset of the Nepali society and the dominance of the so-called upper caste males in local units.
They say although the law has made it mandatory to elect Dalit women in local units, there is no such provision for Dalit males so their representation is far from satisfactory.
Out of the total 293 mayors in the country, just six are Dalit men while just one among the total 460 rural municipality chairs is a Dalit male. Of the 6,743 ward chairpersons, only 197 are from the Dalit community and all are male.
“Dalit women were elected to local units just for the sake of fulfilling the legal requirement but nobody cared to empower them,” said Durga Sob, a Dalit activist and a central committee member of the Janata Samajbadi Party. “The problem is that those Dalit women representatives who were unaware of the power of their office could not perform while those who knew their authorities got no chance to exercise them.”
According to Sob, it’s not that all Dalit women representatives failed to perform their roles but in general their representation could not make much difference. She blames the state and the political parties for lacking any plan to empower Dalit representatives.
Renu Sijapati, general secretary of the Feminist Dalit Organisation, said there are three categories of Dalit women ward members: first are those with years of political experience; second are those who were active in non-governmental organisations; and third are those who entered politics directly without prior experience.
The third category of Dalit women members were denied any substantial role in local governance.
“For a majority of the members the past five years have been a learning experience,” she told the Post. “They have now understood their roles and know how to perform as ward members. If they are re-elected then they will work effectively.”But at a time when women’s representation is at stake due to alliance politics, how many of Dalit women are likey to get a chance again so as really to get reelected to “perform” remains a question.