Thursday, 8 June, 2023

Nepal’s Stride In Gender Equality

Mukunda Raj Kattel


Women in Nepali Politics’ caught my sight while I was strolling around a bookstore in Thamel. Written by Dr. Binda Pandey based on her PhD study, the book presents a deserving testament to the dual battle Nepali women have fought since the late 1940s, when the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal seeded their organisational structures.
In all political battles that followed, be they peaceful or armed, Nepali women fought alongside their male counterparts to transform Nepal’s political architecture. In the battlefield, Nepali women have, thus, been politically equal. On parallel, they have also fought another battle – an internal battle, so to speak – to transform the workings of their own parties to make them gender sensitive and gender equal. In the latter battle, however, the women have mostly been on their own.
As a participant observer and privy to both aspects of the battle, the author, who is currently a parliamentarian, presents an inside out analysis of the ups and downs of intra-party transformation taking as a case in point the erstwhile Communist Party of Nepal- Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), which is the author’s political alma mater. It is rare to get an attached activist-professional to present an evidence-backed detached view on party leadership’s lackluster approach to gender issues.
The book is both informative and educative. It has a crystal message that patriarchy has a ubiquitous influence in all political parties – be they left, right or centre – and stands in the way of gender equality. The book also showcases that patriarchy is not insurmountable. All it requires is a constructive battle from within. The gender equal movement initiated by a handful of women leaders within the UML, claims the book, soon evolved into an agenda of national transformation and effected the change Nepal has seen in the last couple of years. This might sound an overstatement. However, unless other evidence-based counterclaims are available, the claim is going to stay, and rightly so.
Since 2006, Nepal has undergone a rapid transformation in its political order. It has scored significant achievements that have stolen the global limelight. The advancement in women’s political representation is one of them. For this, Nepali women deserve accolades for the battle they fought to bring Nepal where it is now. Nepal’s political parties, including the former UML, deserve the same level of appreciation for creating an enabling environment, both internally and externally. If it were not the political parties, especially the parties on the political left, the achievements Nepal has made would not have been possible.
Numerical representation of women in decision-making forums gives an indication of where a country stands in terms of gender equality. On this account, according to the data available on the webpage of the Inter Parliamentary, Nepal ranks 37th among 189 countries compared in terms of the representation of women in parliament as of October 2019. With 33 percent women in the House of Representatives and 37 percent in the National Assembly, Nepal is the only South Asian country to be ranked below 40. The other closest state in the region is Afghanistan with the 57th rank. All the rest South Asian states rank above 100. The rank of India, the largest democracy in the world, is 144th, 107steps below the rank of Nepal.
The ranking is instructive in the global spotlight as well. Nepal’s ranking is one step better than that of Switzerland, two steps better than that of the United Kingdom, 36 steps better than that of China, 40 steps better than that of the United States of America, 88 steps better than that of South Korea and 127 steps better than that of Japan, countries we look up to as models of civilisation and development. In terms of gender equality, our progress of the last 13 years is a model for some of these countries.
Nepal is one of few countries in the world that has elected a woman as the head of state. And it is perhaps the only country with the constitution that guarantees gender equality in high offices, such as the President and Vice President, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Chairperson and Vice Chairperson of the National Assembly. One of the two in each pair must be a woman. Nepal’s constitution also provides for specific clauses guaranteeing women’s participation in other political structures, including parliament, state assemblies and local bodies.
In 2015, Nepal’s parliament elected a woman as the first Speaker. Four years down the line, in November 2019, it is set to elect another woman, currently serving as Deputy Speaker. If this happens, Nepal will achieve in four years what the United Kingdom, the mother of parliamentary democracy, has not achieved in hundreds of years and India, the largest democracy, in the last 70 years. This is not a small achievement for a country that was under authoritarian patriarchy until 1980s.
However, we have still miles to go to accept women as political equals. Patriarchy is in our social gene, and we, the male members of Nepali society, take it for granted that we have the best of the best ideas and we are best placed to make right decisions. This male chauvinism has widespread social acceptance and is, as a result, reflected in political and other superstructures.
Unless Dr. Pandey is joined by other women, from her own as well as other parties, to fight the social acceptance of male chauvinism and expose its political implications, we run the risk of finding our women representatives confined to legally established quota. A few women might be seen here and there to satisfy legal formalities but they will have no say in decision-making about matters affecting them as women, their family and society.
Decision-making is about numbers. It is the majority voice that counts in decisions. What the constitution has provided is a basic minimum. It should be cherished and made the best use of. It is, however, not enough to influence decisions. It requires many more women to get into politics and hold political office at all levels. To ensure this happens, Nepal’s gender equality movement should now focus on combating prevailing gender stereotypes at the root.

(Kattel, a human rights professional, writes on political and social issues)