Dr. Kundan Aryal
As mentioned in the statement issued by the President's office, the President of Nepal and the Princess Astrid of Belgium discussed women empowerment in Nepal. The Princess expressed her satisfaction, while she paid a courtesy call on the President Bidya Devi Bhandari, over the remarkable progress that Nepal has made in women’s empowerment.
The news hints at the encouraging progress the country has achieved during the past decades. Women’s representation in the parliament reached 29 per cent in the November 2013 elections, which was 2.9 per cent in 1991. Thus, it is an obvious impression that the country has been moving forward with significant progress in gender empowerment, particularly in the field of politics. The data shows that now women occupy 41 per cent of all the local elected government positions. As many as 14,000 women were elected in the local bodies, which is the highest number ever elected to the public office. The constitutional provision has guided political parties to ensure at least 33 per cent representation of women in the legislature.
Against the backdrop, a senior political official's recent statement on the state of women empowerment is an eye-opener for the Nepali society. Dr. Shivmaya Tumbahamphe, while resigning from the post of deputy speaker, remarked that now she came to know how pitrisatta [patriarchy] is mightier than the rajsanstha [monarchy]. She said that the Nepali people united to throw away the rajsanstha, but we require more efforts to change pitrisatta. Her anguish is about the state of gender equality and empowerment.
Women and girls have improved access to education, reflected in educational and professional outcomes. Moreover, any act of discrimination based on sex, pregnancy, or marital status has been criminalised, and traditional harmful practices have been made punishable. Affirmative action laws and policies have improved women’s voice in the affairs of politics and governance. Nevertheless, an educated and deserving candidate for the post of the speaker of the house has been returned from the threshold. Therefore, her statement is an eye-opener, because a lot remains to be done.
With the quest for non-negotiable substantive equality, patriarchy has been impeding the progressive realisation. Knowingly or unknowingly the political actors’ mentality is for the maintenance of the patriarchal status quo.
Patriarchy in our part of the world, long ago, was defined by a communication scholar as follows: The old men are the decision-makers, and they usually make conservative decisions...There are rather rigid customs as to what kind of work a woman can do and what her influence can be. In the course of discussing the role of information in the developing countries, in 1964, Wilbur Schramm thus describes, in his work Mass Media and National Development, about our situation during the second half of the 20th century. Thereafter, we have moved far ahead.
Nepal has demonstrated an example in the case of gender inclusion and political representation. Many of the harmful practices, such as the practice of child marriage, have been gradually decreasing. However, despite the increased focus and momentum on addressing violence against women and girls, the problem remains widespread. Deeply embedded patriarchal norms, customary practices and common beliefs are contributing to creating combined adverse-effects on women’s health, livelihoods, life, dignity and personal integrity.
The progress, as well as gaps in the implementation of the gender equality agenda in Nepal, has been reviewed by the specialised agencies. In the areas such as violence against women and women's human rights; resources and capabilities; and voice, agency and leadership, as UN Women concludes, there has been some notable progress towards gender equality and the empowerment of women between 1995 and 2015.
However, if we come to the real ground, aside of the political lives, women are being discriminated in the field of economy. Wage inequality between sexes for equal work still prevails. Despite the engagement in the process of accelerating the economy, Nepali women are not economically empowered. Domestic works are not quantified. Consequently, the country has been ranked high in terms of women’s labour force participation, but not in other aspects of economic equality. Nepali women face multiple forms of discrimination in addition to gender, which could be based on class, caste, geography, language and religion. That is why, Dr Shivamaya states, women in Nepal are being victimised by social, economic, political, religious, cultural and patriarchal exploitation. A couple of days before her resignation from the post of deputy speaker, she brought the 3rd edition of her work Nepalma mahila aandolan [Women's movement in Nepal], to the public. She concludes, in her work, that Nepali women’s movement needs to be escalated as the movement against patriarchy. Her idea is that the movement against patriarchy is not possible only through the class struggle and it is not possible by ignoring the class struggle. She argues that class-based exploitation and patriarchy are moving hand-in-hand.
There is no different opinion that patriarchal attitudes and deep-rooted stereotypes remain embedded in the social, cultural, religious, economic and political institutions. Therefore the process of political and economic empowerment of the Nepali women needs to be undertaken with an effective approach of substantive equality.
We can interpret the GII (Gender Inequality Index) 2018, an indicator to gauge differences in the distribution of the fruits of development between women and men that Nepal is still ahead of India. Because the index shows that Nepal ranks 115 with 0.476 against India which ranks 122 with 0.501. But if we match it with Switzerland which ranks first with 0.037, Nepal would still need to traverse a long journey. Since gender inequality remains a major barrier to human development, the national aspiration of prosperous Nepal and happy Nepali would not be achieved without defeating patriarchy. Lack of understanding of human development costs of gender inequality is so obvious. In a bid to achieve Nepal' dream of reaching higher-middle level income by 2030, by achieving the SDGs, the country requires the partnership of governments, private sector, civil society and all the citizens. In Shivamaya's words, all the men also need to be aware of the ill-effects of patriarchal attitudes of Nepali politics.
In October 2018, the experts of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in Geneva expressed their surprise: why was there a problem for women candidates to compete for the first-past-post positioning rather than just the quota posts? It is visible that the cause of the wonder of the UN CEDAW committee experts and the agony of Dr Shivmaya is the same. The political parties in Nepal appear trying their best to confine women to secondary roles, such as deputies not only in local bodies but the deputy even in the parliament.
(Dr. Aryal is associated with Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, TU.)