Nepal Elections: More Women Have a Seat at the Table, But Will They Have a Voice?
December 13, 2017
2017 is a milestone year for Nepal: millions of Nepalis voted in provincial and federal elections which ended last week, and earlier this year, the country held its first local elections in two decades, electing a total of 35,041 local representatives across 753 local levels. The elections were also a high point for women elected leaders, thanks to the constitution’s new quota system. The question now, however, is whether that numerical representation actually translates into engendering Nepal’s political process.
Nepal’s 2015 constitution mandates that 40.4 percent of all nominee seats be reserved for women. At least 14,000 women were elected from the three phases of local elections—the highest number ever elected to public office. Women now occupy posts as ward members, ward chairs, chairs and deputy chairs of rural municipalities (gaunpalikas), and mayors and deputy mayors of municipalities.For both urban and rural municipalities, membership for the ward committee requires that at least two of the four ward members are women, one of whom must be from the Dalit caste (socio-economically the lowest and most underprivileged under the hindu caste system). The election law also mandates that political parties must field at least one woman candidate between mayor and deputy mayor, and between chair and deputy chair of rural municipalities. The constitution also mandates that the nine-member District Coordination Committees include a minimum of three women. It is also important to note that deputy chair/mayors have also been designated to lead the Judicial Committee which is to be created at the local level.
Certainly, these are significant developments toward building inclusive participatory spaces for women, and will continue to unfold within a complex political and socio-cultural context in the country. But initial observations and voices from the field are concerning, and reflect that women elected leaders are still confronted by deep-seated gender expectations, questions on capacities, and often divisive political ideologies, caste, ethnicity, religion, and class.
Unlike their male counterparts, women elected leaders are confronted with making choices between what is perceived as their primary identity as a home maker/caregiver vs. a political leader. The deeply entrenched patriarchal social norms that define gendered expectations and roles where women are historically confined to performing their domestic roles seems to be undermining their newfound political identity. Many women elected representatives confided during interactions that they are being derided by their own communities at being elected as local leaders. The communities’ trepidation in accepting women as leaders is pervasive, and is a far greater drawback for the effective participation of women in politics, than any other capacity limitations the elected women leaders may have.
Engendering the formal political space that the elected women representatives have come to occupy will require intensive behavior change interventions targeting both men and women for redefining gender roles and behavior that are rooted in patriarchy.
It is critical for all stakeholders invested in Nepal’s democratization process to go beyond the hardwired investment on building the operational skills and capacity of the elected women representatives. While it will be necessary to support women leaders to better understand procedures and systems of local of governance, such as planning, budgeting, and advocacy, it’s equally if not more important to address the socially engrained barriers to women’s political participation. To underscore the numerical presence of women in political spaces one will need to support initiatives that can define the social discourse around women in leadership.
While tremendous opportunities exist for women’s political participation in Nepal within the new political structure, whether or not this translates into creating a substantive representation of women in governance and political decision making remains to be seen.
Nandita Baruah is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Nepal, and Jerryll Reyes is partnership manager for TAF-DFAT Subnational Governance Program. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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