Still a Man’s Game

STILL A MAN’S GAME (Published in The Kathmandu Post’s Saturday edition, On Saturday. 30th October 2010)


The Constituent Assembly has 33 percent women. That dœs not explain women’s poor participation in the constitution building process

The recently-concluded Nepali Congress’ 12th General Convention saw a drastic shift from its earlier approach towards representation. Besides reserving seats for representatives from the Madhes and indigenous communities, the grand old party of Nepal also reserved six seats in its Central Working Committee (CWC) for women for the first time.

Women’s participation in the Nepali polity today is at new heights, with women occupying nearly 33 percent of the seats in the Constituent Assembly—one of the highest representations in a national parliament in the world.

Despite the progress, however, women are still sidelined in the decision-making processes, and a culture of patriarchy still marginalises them.

This inherent patriarchy is also reflected in the organisational structures of various political parties and government bodies. The present government has five women ministers out of a total of 43. Despite reservations for women, the NC CWC only has 14 women among its 65 members. In the CPNUML’s 115-member Central Committee, there are 18 women, while only four women are members of its 39-member Politburo. The biggest party in the Constituent Assembly, the UCPN (Maoist), has only 12 women in its 148-member Central Committee, while the 45-member Politburo has only two women representatives.

Women politicians argue that their under-representation in political decisions is a reflection of Nepali society’s attitude towards women. According to NC’s Suprabha Ghimire, with all the recent participation of women in national politics, Nepali society is still less than willing to accept women as leaders. “Society looks up to men as born leaders. They are not eager to welcome women in these roles,” she says. Sarita Giri of the Nepal Sadbhavana Party believes that women have more influence in smaller parties, but they face obstacles in decision-making and in the Constitution-building processes at the larger national scale.

Women politicians argue that although women are active in Constituent Assembly committee meetings, they don’t get adequate opportunities to express themselves during parliament and plenary discussions. This is a manifestation of traditional gender discrimination practices that still consider women to be inferior to men. “Whenever we raise an issue inside the CA, senior leaders walk out of the hall without caring to listen to us. Even the media ignores the issues that women raise,” says Savitra Bhusal. “Women haven’t been given due importance in the constitution-building process,” says Giri.

Savitra Bhusal recognises the “influence of a feudalistic, patriarchal society” apparent within her party and indeed throughout the political strata. For instance, female leaders, many who are married to politicians, are heavily influenced by their husband’s agendas. “After marriage, they become passive,” she says.

How these entrenched perspectives can be overcome is a matter of considerable debate. Ghimire believes time and education to be essential to eradicate such “backward” attitudes perpetuated by illiteracy. “One must promote female education through affirmative action policies,” key issues, according to her, in the NC’s manifesto to eradicate “backward” attitudes caused by illiteracy.

It is clear that the circle is vicious: women are underrepresented in politics because of their supposed inferiority in society, and they are still discriminated against because policies to amend discriminatory laws are either not being introduced or not being implemented effectively.

The situation is not entirely bleak, nevertheless. “There are silver lines in the clouds,” Maoist CA member Pampha Bhusal remarks. She says women in her party pushed for a 50 percent quota in representation for women, but compromised on 33 percent. The new statute also looks to build on the gains made for women (including the Women’s Rights Bill) in the Interim Constitution. Savitra Bhusal notes the difficulty in implementation and institutionalisation due to a transitional phase, something that is noticeable in the lackluster implementation of the anti-dowry and anti-domestic violence laws.

There remains a need to change a number of discriminatory laws for women, most notably concerning citizenship. But like most political processes, such legislation is stuck in the deep mire of political stagnancy, something that women leaders agree to. For reform to be effective, changes in the constitutional and policy levels need to trickle down. “We need to bring these changes at the implementation level,” Savitra says.

The current political situation, for all its slogans, dœs not actually enhance women’s representation and secure their rights. As the constitution-building process drags on, with no consensus over what system of government will be introduced, the perspectives of women continue to be represented by a few voices. However, one thing is certain: women who have secured leadership positions are not afraid to protest. No women were selected in the six member constitution drafting committee in June 2006, but after demonstrations and picketing, this was revised. On May 28 this year, women CA members jointly protested against all the parties demanding an agreement on the CA’s term extension. If these examples are anything to go by, the new statute should be able to change the paradigm of politics in Nepal.

But the message is clear: for society to change, women need to stand up and assert themselves, whether in the office, in parliament or in their homes.


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