Up to the taskMore struggle is necessary to get Nepali women into real decision-making positions
Nepali women have come a long way when it comes to their involvement in political affairs, fair representation and access to power. From before the formation of Nepal as a nation-state right through to the end of the Rana regime, women were hardly featured in the country’s political history. Of course, there were a few figures who made some noise prior to the fall of the Rana oligarchy—women like Yogamaya Neupane, Maharani Rajendra Laxmi and the 17th century nun Ani Chokki of Dolpa come to mind. For the most part, however, the male-dominated ‘public’ domain remained aloof from the women-centred ‘private’ one. It would have taken an incredible amount of determination and spirit to venture beyond the realm of the home and ‘home-making’ into the dominion of public life and affairs, and thus such involvement was uncommon or remains unrecorded.
Present day numbers
The first real entry we see of female protagonists in politics is in the decade that runs up to Nepal’s first democratic election of 1958. Under BP Koirala’s first 22-member Cabinet, Dwarika Devi Thakurani became Nepal’s first female minister and won a seat in Parliament alongside Kamal Rana, the other woman to win. This Cabinet was exemplary in many more ways, not least for its inclusion of a Dalit and a Tharu minister. Of course, when viewed through the lens of today’s standards of inclusion, the position held by Dwarika Devi was clearly a ‘token’ gesture, but after 100 years of Rana rule and absolute oligarchy, the fact that both women were able to win seats and that one of them was appointed minister is surely a signal of society’s urge to thrust itself forward.
That was nearly six decades ago and it was a good start, even by global standards.
The conundrum posed today is that, all of these years later, Nepal once again has one woman in a Cabinet of 27 members. One out of 27 at a time when, after years of work and deliberations, 33 percent representation has been made mandatory for all political parties and Parliament (on paper). The contrast is even more stark when you consider last month’s announcement that at least 50 percent of women would have to be fielded in local elections, and women’s participation in the political process is higher than it has ever been.
Even when the narrative and political will for ‘inclusion’ was at its height and women had secured 33 percent of seats in Parliament (thanks to the PR system) in the first post-CA government in 2009, there were only six—15 per cent—Cabinet ministers who were women. That is the most number of women that Nepal has had in top level decision-making positions ever.
Other governments under other party leaderships fared no better. While there were six women ministers in the first Cabinet after elections in 2008, in the seven Cabinets that followed, an average of less than 10 percent of Cabinet ministers have been women. The leadership of these governments has consisted of a good mix and variety of parties, so the current government is certainly not the odd one out.
Cabinet positions entitle individuals to ‘meaningful’ political participation where designated candidates have a leadership mandate and the capacity to take decisions and make things happen. This entails that Cabinet make-up can be a decent reference point to examine the extent to which women are involved in decision-making processes.
The structures of democratic governance in Nepal are yet to be institutionalised. As a result, other important organs of the state like Parliament, have limited capacity to collectively push progressive agendas without support from those in higher positions of power like the top party leaders and the government. In addition, factors like nepotism and patron-client relationships have a strong presence across the governance structures, making it difficult for individual MPs to work largely in the interest of their constituencies. Add to that the prevalence of party whips, which effectively compel MPs to toe the party line, and progress becomes more difficult.
For these reasons, even with a women’s caucus in place in the first CA, generating tangible achievements for women in politics in terms of increased decision-making roles resulting in positive outcomes has proved challenging. One accomplishment was the statute of limitations on reporting rape, which was extended to 180 days instead of 35 after much hue and cry. On this issue, however, due credit must be afforded to the role of civil society organisations and the women’s caucus lobby in Parliament. The provision of citizenships under the mother’s name in the new Constitution was also a momentous achievement. Women MPs continued their lobbying of this provision in the second CA, which did not have the caucus. The cause was further pushed forward by the advocacy of the wider Madhesi parties’ and public mobilisation regarding the issue.
If it was a challenge with the caucus in place, the convenient removal of all caucuses in the second CA (and the Legislative Parliament that was formed as a result of the second CA), has meant that it is even more challenging for women to work across party lines to demand more inclusion in decision-making portfolios and to empower themselves to push for greater equality at the societal level.
Is notable representation enough?
What Nepal has—and had even more of in the first CA—is a notable representation of women in government. These high numbers present positive impressions and messages to society. This is important and has worked to boost the morale of women by changing impressions of society in regard to women and their roles. In particular, the appointment of women to three very high level positions—the President, Speaker of the House and Chief Justice—has garnered the attention of local and international media, and the general public. These appointments have pushed forward a gender-friendly image of the nation. But it is becoming increasingly clear that these actions will not be enough to really get women into decision-making positions. The optimistic idea is that numbers will eventually give way to qualitative change and gradual inclusion of a meaningful nature. However, this will not be achieved without great struggle on the part of women who are already in the political game. It is not enough to demand the numbers, there needs to be demand for more decision-making power.
In particular, women working across the party lines and already in Parliament must make way for other women to take up the PR seats and ready themselves to fight for the first-past-the-post seats. They will need to demand the tickets to contest elections from their party leaders, to campaign in their constituencies and win elections.
That will empower them and give them the necessary confidence to demand more from their party leaders, to include them in ‘high-level’ meetings and negotiations, to give them important ministerial and party portfolios and make decisions that matter.
So long as the most educated, politically astute and experienced women leaders across the parties relegate themselves to the confines of the PR quota and are weighed down by baggage in the form of terms of loyalty to party leaders, the grounds for women to negotiate with their party leaders for meaningful participation will be beaten down by the complexities of a closed PR list that often invites malpractice. After all, gaining an incremental stake in real power is a challenging endeavour that will require more struggle. Nepal must remain up to the task.
Dhungel is associated with National Democratic Institute. Opinions expressed are her own.