Nepal’s women have a voice in politics, but noone is listening.

Hurrah! Published on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters Blog at the end of last month.

Women occupy 33% of seats in parliament but their influence on Nepal’s new constitution has been limited by patriarchal attitudes.

After two years of intense wrangling and political deadlock, the extended deadline for passing Nepal’s new constitution is looming, with a decision expected on 28 May. In 2006, a decade of fighting came to an end when Nepal’s main political parties signed a peace deal with former Maoist rebels. A year later, an interim constitution was adopted, setting women’s representation in the legislative parliament at 33%.

In the 2008 election to choose a constituent assembly (CA) tasked with drafting a new constitution, women’s political participation soared to new heights, with one of the highest representations at the level of national parliament worldwide. However, despite women occupying 33% of the seats in the CA, their progress in contributing to the constitution-building progress has been hindered by a culture of patriarchy in which female politicians continue to be marginalised.

This inherent patriarchy is reflected in the organisational structure of the various political parties and government bodies. The present government led by Jhalanath Khanal, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), has just five women ministers out of a total of 43. Another of the main parties, the Nepali Congress Party – Central Working Committee (NC-CWC), has only 14 women among its 65 members. In the CPN-UML’s 115-member central committee, there are 18 women, and only four women are members of its 39-member politburo. The central committee of the largest party, the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), includes just 12 women among its 148 members, and there are just two female representatives within the 45-member politburo.

According to female politicians, the marginalisation of women in the political sphere reflects entrenched patriarchal attitudes towards them. Suprabha Ghimire, of the NC, believes that Nepalese society is still reluctant 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, leader of the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, believes women do have more influence in smaller parties such as hers, but they face obstacles in the decision-making and constitution-building processes at the national level.

Women lack opportunities to express themselves during parliamentary and plenary discussions, she says. “Whenever we raise an issue inside the CA, senior leaders walk out of the hall without bothering to listen to us. Even the media ignores the issues that women raise,” says Savitra Bhusal, from the CPN-UML. Giri adds: “Women haven’t been given due importance in the constitution-building process.”

In Nepal, gender discrimination is rife. Disparities exist in access to secondary education, while the high rates of domestic violence and early marriage, discrimination towards widows and prevalence of trafficking in girls demonstrate the unequal status of women in society. Bhusal highlights chaupadi pratha, the practice of isolating women who are menstruating, as an example of this discrimination. At its most extreme, rural women may be forced to sleep in animal sheds during menstruation. She says the “backward” attitute that menstruating women are somehow “polluted” persists among people in both urban and rural communities, and regardless of their levels of education. She says the “influence of a feudalistic, patriarchal society” is evident within the CPN-UML.

How to tackle such entrenched perspectives is a matter of considerable debate. Bhusal wants grassroots action while Ghimire believes such attitudes are perpetuated by illiteracy, which can only be tackled over time with better education. “One must promote female education through affirmative action policies,” says Ghimire, adding that these are key issues of the NC manifesto.

Clearly, it is a vicious circle: women are marginalised in politics because they are considered inferior within society, and discrimination against them continues because of failures at policy level.

The situation has been further complicated by the difficulties in implementing laws during the transitional political phase, Bhusal argues. She says a number of discriminatory laws affecting women need to be changed. Anti-dowry and domestic violence laws remain poorly implemented and legislation has been affected by the political stagnancy. For effective reform to take place, changes at the constitutional and policy levels need to trickle down.

Nevertheless, many Nepalese women are voicing their concerns. In 2006, no women were selected for the six-member constitution drafting committee but this was revised after women lobbied and held demonstrations. On 28 May last year, women members of the CA came together to protest against all the parties that were demanding an agreement on the extension of the CA’s term.

At the grassroots level, too, women are speaking out. But, says Madhu Shrestha, president of the Rural Women’s Network Nepal (Ruwon Nepal), politicians do not adequately represent the interests of rural women, and they are rarely able to implement women-friendly polices. “In practice,” she says, “women MPs do not represent the grassroots women population. Most of them are either wives, or sisters or relatives of the male leaders of political parties.” The fact that the minister for women, children and social welfare is a man speaks volumes.

A major problem for women is lack of self-confidence, says Uma Bhandari, a lecturer at Tribhuvan University. But she, along with education expert Dhruba Ghimire, Ruwon’s general secretary, Shrestha and a team of Ruwon volunteers are focusing on grassroots action through campaigns, leadership training and knowledge-building. At their women’s literacy school in Saraswoti Nagar, Kathmandu, around 200 illiterate women are learning to read and write in Nepali and English and to understand mathematics to boost their confidence and equip them with livelihood skills.

Ruwon’s holistic approach also covers leadership training in the rural district of Sindhuli, teaching women how to speak confidently in front of a group and how to express thoughts and opinions. As well as providing health and hygiene awareness classes, Ruwon provides practical knowledge through workshops on marriage registration and political rights, to enable women to understand what their rights are and give them the confidence to assert them.

However, in Nepal the consequences of speaking out on behalf of women can be dangerous. Dhruba Ghimire admits he has been treated with hostility because of his work. Amnesty International has reported on the deadly consequences of women’s activism, highlighting the case of Uma Singh, a journalist in her mid-20s who was murdered in 2009 for writing about gender-based violence. Amnesty has reported not only on the vulnerability of women activists to violence, but on police complicity in perpetuating discrimination when women speak out.

The organisation’s research suggests that, instead of investigating incidents of violence, police sometimes coerce women into attending traditional community courts, where bribes and the perceived lack of importance of the crime often prevent any real justice.

Despite the dangers and obstacles they face, a minority of women aren’t afraid to speak out and challenge social norms. At the political level, too, “the clouds have a silver lining”, says Pampha Bhusal, a member of the United Community Party of Nepal – Maoist (UCPN-M). She is hopeful that the new statute will build on the advances made for women, including the Women’s Right’s Bill, in the interim constitution.

Yet as the constitution-building process drags on, with no reliable evidence that a consensus will be reached by the May deadline, the perspectives of Nepal’s women continue to be represented by a few women in what continues to be an “old boy’s club”, and the real progress appears to be occurring outside the political arena.


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