Engendering changeWomen will be more visible in the political structure only once they are allowed to leverage power
Huma Acharya has been a ward member of Kathmandu Metropolitan City-31 for almost a year and a half now. Despite being in politics for decades, this is the first time she has ever held public office. Like many other women now in government, Acharya was elected in the 2017 local elections, after being nominated under the women’s quota.
Before 2017, the last time local elections were held—in 1997—women constituted a negligible 0.5 percent of public representatives. Faced with such a dismal state of affairs, the 2015 constitution guaranteed 40 percent female representation at the local level and 33 percent representation in the House of Representatives and the National Assembly. Now, women hold 14,352 out of a total 35,041 seats at the local level—a nearly 41 percent share. At the national level, the 33 percent quota has translated to women holding 90 seats out of 275 in the House of Representatives and 22 seats out of 59 in the National Assembly.
Clearly, the quotas have had their desired effect.
Worldwide, quotas have proven to be an effective policy tool in furthering the political participation of women and other minority groups. They have also helped improve the perception of women as leaders.
Huma Acharya agrees. She recounts how people respond to her positively since her election as a ward member. The same people who would otherwise pay her little attention are now willing to accept her as the future ward chairperson , she said.
“The way people look at you and the kind of respect they give you when you are an elected representative, even if under the quota system, is testament to the fact that people are slowly willing to accept women as leaders,” said Acharya.
With the introduction of reservation quotas, Nepal is making positive strides in creating an inclusive government. While the elected women are overwhelming in deputy positions—94 percent of deputy mayors throughout the country are women—many will likely be vying for higher positions by the next election. Similarly, those who’ve started out as ward members are training themselves to become ward chairpersons. These might seem like small steps, but in the long run, the reservation system is certain to help build a larger pool of women who are ready to break the glass ceiling and enter the world of ‘high politics’ long considered an exclusively male domain.
As everywhere else, there have been numerous critiques of the quota system, both justified and otherwise. The charge that most women who have taken political office could very well owe their career to nepotism and favouritism might hold true to a certain extent. While quotas definitely open doors for women to enter politics, they could be rigged in favour of already-privileged individuals. It is likely that the women who benefit are those who already enjoy connections with the political class.
Most of the women appointed to Parliament on the basis of proportional representation is a case in point. Current members of Parliament, such as Sujita Shakya, Bina Shrestha, Juli Mahato, Kalyani Khadga and Tulsi Thapa, come from the families of major leaders from different parties.
Quotas, therefore, run the risk of being reduced to a form of patronage, owing to women’s relations with male politicians. Regrettably, if such a situation persists, reservation quotas will not produce substantive outcomes.
Hariprabha Khadgi, deputy mayor for Kathmandu Metropolitan City, however, sees reservations as positive discrimination. But she is quick to express her dissatisfaction when it comes to the double standards her male counterparts demonstrate routinely. “Men do not miss an opportunity to paint a dreamy vision of having women in policy-making and leadership positions,” she said.
“Yet, when it actually comes to emboldening them and including them in the decision-making process, men are reluctant.”
Khadgi has recently emerged as one of the strongest deputy mayors in the country, alongside contemporaries like Uma Thapa Magar and Gita Adhikari from Banke and Damak, respectively. Khadgi has openly stood against the publicly unpopular stance of Kathmandu mayor Bidhya Sundar Shakya on issues like heritage reconstruction, especially the Rani Pokhari. This has won Khadgi support from a wide section of the public who view Shakya as grossly incompetent.
Women will be more visible across the political spectrum only once they are allowed to leverage power, but with the reservation quotas largely benefiting women who already enjoy political clout, there are fewer chances of women from traditionally non-political families being at the helm of affairs. While quotas help open doors to political participation, rather than solely relying on being nominated, women must be elected to political offices. Only then can they learn how to strategise and analyse—characteristics crucial for any leader. It will help them in capacity-building too. Unless this is achieved, representation of women in politics will be merely symbolic, say some women leaders.
“Quotas have helped women a great deal. But while they provide opportunities for women, they fall short of turning them into leaders,” said Pushpa Bhusal, a Nepali Congress Member of Parliament. “If women are to make a mark for themselves, they need to be elected to political office rather than just nominated. When someone is ‘elected’, it gives them recognition. So contesting elections is essential to establish women in both party and national politics.”
This sentiment is evident in the number of women holding high-level portfolios in government. Despite so many provisions, not a single woman is chief minister and there are only three women ministers in a 25-member Cabinet. Of course, it might be too much to expect an all-women Cabinet like that of Claire Underwood from the Netflix show House of Cards, or even Ethiopia’s 50-50 division of top ministerial positions. Structural changes—in this case, a truly inclusive government where women are actively involved in decision making—always take a long time to come to fruition.
While women should be active and present themselves as effective representatives in any elected body, the men, for their part, need to let go of the reins and involve their female counterparts in decision-making processes. The next election is four years away. That is ample time to take small steps so that in the next four decades, Nepal comes a little closer to having strong independently-elected women holding top leadership positions.