Not quite half the skyNepal is on the verge of making history with the first local election in 20 years that is taking place today. As many as 19,332 women are taking part in the polls being held under the federal set-up, and 5,196 among them are assured posts as per the Local Level Election Act 2017,
Nepal is on the verge of making history with the first local election in 20 years that is taking place today. As many as 19,332 women are taking part in the polls being held under the federal set-up, and 5,196 among them are assured posts as per the Local Level Election Act 2017, which says that at least 40 percent of the members of the ward committee should be women. Additionally, it is likely that women will win a few hundred more posts in other categories. It is exciting to see women from all social arenas filing candidacy—ex-combatants of the People’s War, women from highly marginalised groups like the Chepangs and women who would not have participated in the election if not for the proportional representation provision in the constitution. Creating this critical mass of women in political leadership will have ripple effects throughout families, communities and the country.
Despite the encouraging scenario, women have yet again been cheated out of constitutional and legal provisions which are in place to create a more equitable and inclusive society. The Local Level Election Act requires political parties to field at least 50 percent women candidates, but women make up only 39.3 percent of the candidates as shown by the numbers released by the National Election Commission. Women head key state organs in Nepal and the participation of women in politics is increasing. However, fewer women were elected to the Constituent Assembly in 2013 than in 2008, and the current Cabinet has only one woman as full minister. This shows the need for serious attention in bringing into the spotlight the intricacies that limit women’s participation in politics.
Violence against women in politics (abbreviated as VAWIP) has been identified as one of the most critical issues that limits women’s political participation. VAWIP also encompasses religious, cultural and social dimensions, such as domestication and subservience of women and limited access to economic resources that curtail women’s political rights and opportunities. A study carried out by the Centre for Social Research and UN Women in Nepal, India and Pakistan showed some interesting, but deeply worrying, trends with regard to violence against women in politics. According to the study, 100 percent of the Nepali respondents agreed that women have the right to participate in electoral politics, but 90 percent of them also believed that a woman should not ignore her domestic responsibilities, even as an elected candidate.
This research finding reflects the obvious social reality that not even 10 percent of the domestic work given up by Nepali women who have entered the workforce has been taken over by men. The status of a daughter-in-law is the lowest in the family, but she has to do most of the household duties. She may get help from her mother-in-law and other family members, but this comes at a price in the form of emotional harassment. The report also shows that while prevalence of physical violence is quite low in Nepal, there are high levels of character assassination and emotional blackmail—54 and 52 percent of the respondents from Nepal said that women faced such forms of violence during elections and while in public office.
Besides these direct forms of violence, patrilocality and limited access to economic resources are other critical factors that pose a challenge for women to participate in politics independently. The recent suicide of a Dalit woman candidate in Dhading district—apparently due to a family dispute over managing election expenses—points to the gravity of the issue. Lack of an income source and limited access to property and decision making are the greatest challenges for women.
Similarly, patrilocality requires women to move in with the husband’s family after marriage, and a woman who has to leave her family, social network and support base behind when she comes to a new place is severely disadvantaged, as popularity and familiarity are important factors for election candidates. Some women may be lucky and receive support from the family—especially owing to the provision of special quotas for women—as a means to keep power within the family, but this would be next to impossible for women who may have a political ideology that differs from the family’s.
As more and more women are entering the public and political arenas, it has become crucial to create a level playing field where women can claim participation and leadership at all levels and execute them fully. This requires the commitment of all men and women from the personal sphere of the family to the political will of the state. The exclusive commitment of political parties to promote women leaders within their party structure is also very important, especially to address the claim that political parties cannot find qualified women candidates to fill leadership positions. Let all social, economic and political barriers be broken so that we can truly fulfil Nepal’s constitutional vision for women and the country.
Parajuli is associated with the Nepal Youth Foundation