Despite law, Nepal fails to achieve Dalit women representation in wardsParties say they failed to find candidates, an argument Dalit activists do not agree with.
Tika R Pradhan
When Prabha Pariyar was approached with a proposition to run for ward member, she had little idea about it.
“I spoke with some senior members in the community. Then some CPN-UML leaders also reached out to me,” said Prabha, 43. “Then I thought the position could be a platform for me to raise the issues of our community.”
She was fielded as a member of Ward 27 of Kathmandu Metropolitan City. Since no candidacy was filed against her, she won the position unopposed long before the elections.
“I have now also taken the party membership,” said Prabha, who used to work for a non-governmental organisation.
Nepal is holding local elections on May 13. The Local Level Election Act-2017 has made it mandatory that of the five persons elected in each ward, one must be a Dalit woman. That means, 6,743 Dalit women representatives must be elected in 753 local units across the country. Prabha is one of those.
Despite the law, however, only 6,620 Dalit women will be elected as ward members from the upcoming elections, as there are no candidates for 123 wards. The legally-mandated number could not be achieved in the last local elections held in 2017 either. As many as 176 seats reserved for Dalit women as ward members remained vacant.
Political parties have resorted to the excuse that they could not find Dalit women candidates.
Dalit rights activists, however, say there are multiple factors—from discriminatory mindset among leaders to political parties’ lack of willingness—which have become barriers to electing Dalit ward members in the legally mandated number.
According to Pradip Pariyar, a Dalit rights activist, patriarchal mindset prevalent among political party leaders and their discriminatory approach continue to pose an obstruction in Dalit women’s progess.
“Instead of implementing the constitutional provision of inclusion they [political leaders] have the mindset to seek loopholes so that they could cut down the seats of the underprivileged communities,” said Pradip. “They seem to be least bothered to implement the constitution that they drafted.”
The Pariyar-led Samata Foundation had organised province-wise campaigns before nominations were filed for the local polls. According to Pradip, political parties had committed to fielding as many Dalit candidates as possible in leadership positions of local bodies.
“It is surprising that not just one political party but all political forces are reluctant to field Dalit candidates,” said Pradip.
As per the census of 2011, Dalits account for 13.8 percent of the total population of Nepal.
Article 42 (1) of the constitution states that the socially backward women, Dalit, indigenous people, indigenous nationalities, Madhesi, Tharu, minorities, persons with disabilities, marginalized communities, Muslims, backward classes, gender and sexual minorities, youths, farmers, labourers, oppressed or citizens from backward regions and indigent Khas Arya shall have the right to participate in the State bodies on the basis of inclusion principle.
When Nepal held its first local elections in 20 years in 2017, around 41 percent of the elected representatives were women. As many as 6,567 Dalit women members were elected for 6,743 vacant positions. This was hailed as a big move forward towards womens’ participation.
Although 176 ward seats reserved for Dalit women remained vacant, there were expectations that political parties would work towards electing all 6,743 Dalit women members.
Durga Sob, a Dalit rights activist who has worked for decades for the uplift of the Dalit women through various social organisations, joined politics a few years ago, hoping that political platform could help her raise the voice more strongly.
“But I have realised political parties are not committed to the spirit of the legal and constitutional provisions,” said Sob, a former chair of the Feminist Dalit Organisation and now a central member of the Janata Samajbadi Party. “If Dalit women were elected in the past and will be elected again, it’s because of the mandatory legal provisions, not because the political parties actually want it.”
Most of Nepal’s political parties are led by men from the so-called upper caste.
Article 24 of the constitution has exclusively mentioned the right against untouchability and discrimination. Its Clause 1 states that no person shall be subjected to any form of untouchability or discrimination in any private and public places on grounds of his or her origin, caste, tribe, community, profession, occupation or physical condition. Clause 5 says any act of untouchability and discrimination in any form committed in contravention of this Article shall be punishable by law as a severe social offence, and the victim of such act shall have the right to obtain compensation in accordance with law.
There is also a specific law in the country—Caste-based Discrimination and Untouchability (Offense and Punishment) Act 2011—that safeguards Dalit rights.
Despite the constitutional provisions and law, however, few politicians appear committed to ensuring their implementation.
As a representative case, take a remark by a senior Nepali Congress leader in 2017, issued ahead of the local elections then. Addressing a meeting of the then Legislature-Parliament in April 2017, Arzu Rana Deuba had demanded that the mandatory provision of fielding Dalit women in each ward of the 753 local units should be scrapped because it won’t be possible to find Dalit woman leaders at every ward.
She had also demanded the Speaker’s ruling to amend the Local Level Election Act-2017 that makes it mandatory for the parties to field a Dalit womn as member in each ward. Arzu, a central member of the Congress, is also the wife of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba.
According to Bhim Bishwokarma, a researcher and executive director of Jagaran Media Centre, which advocates for the elimination of caste-based discrimination and creating a more equitable, inclusive, and secular society through media mobilisation, Nepali society continues to view Dalits as second class citizens.
“Dalit women are not being fielded in some wards because there is some sort of fear among the so-called upper caste people that they have to show respect to Dalits if they are elected,” said Bhim. “Caste-based discrimination continues despite the law against it. While it’s difficult for Dalit women to get space, they continue to face discrimination once they are elected.”
Some of the reasons behind the lack of nomination of Dalit women ward members, according to Dalit rights activists, are that they are not affiliated to political parties, their names are not on voters’ list and the difficulty they face to get citizenship certificates.
Dalit leaders in political parties admit that they failed to pay adequate attention to the issue of inclusion and Dalit women’s nominations in the numbers mandated by the law.
“There were five years for the parties to learn to avoid a similar mistake after 176 Dalit women members in wards were not elected in 2017. But this time too, there won’t be 123 Dalit women members,” said Chhabilal Bishwakarma, a secretary of the UML.
Rights activists say affirmative measures are a must to ensure participation of and space for the marginalised in state organs.
“Despite the law, parties are not fielding candidates. Now it has become imperative to amend the constitution to mention the provision,” said Pariyar of the Samata Foundation. “I don’t think political leaders are taking the inclusion issue seriously. Hundreds of wards will continue to remain without Dalit women ward members unless it is made mandatory by the constitution.”