If political power is to be achieved through parliamentary legislation, then women have first to get elected to Parliament. The male-dominated hierarchies of the major political parties have not proved very progressive in this sphere.
For a while, it seemed that Nepali women would be able to run with the momentum of the People’s Movement of April 1990 and make strides towards achieving political equality. After all, women leaders and activists were very active during the Movement and the tempo did not let up until the formulation of the new Nepali Constitution, in which woman-friendly provisions were certainly included.
But lately, what seems to be the endless meanderings of Nepali party politics, has begun. In the process, the women’s agenda seems to have slipped slowly to backstage. Even though women (and some men) elected to Parliament have promised to take women’s concerns into the Parliament and try their best to change discriminatory laws, the Upper and Lower Houses have yet to begin grappling with the real issue including women’s demands for political equality, economic right and freedom from all forms of discrimination.
Because there had been little history of women’s activism during the Panchayat years (or the Rana years previously), it was all the more remarkable to observe the manner in which women arose during the Nepali movement for human rights and democracy. While the exact numbers are not verified, at least 300 women were arrested during the course of the 50-day movement. At least six died for freedom.
The issues that some women activists and candidates raised during the elections referred to well-known women’s concerns, particularly those related to the rights to property, education, health care and nutrition. Other women, however, felt that party affiliation was more important and they chose not to put women’s concerns on the political agenda.
Many women leaders feel, even today, that the male-dominated party hierarchies in both the two main parties. the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) are not sufficiently sensitive to women’s rights, both within their own organisations and in society at large. As Sahana Pradhan, senior leader of the CPN(UML) told a journalist colleague recently, “The simple fact is that men do not want to see women as equals. After all, they are products of our culture. Because I am a woman first, I have been trying to educate my male colleagues on the need to accept women as equal partners.”
If even a prominent front-line leader senses discrimination, what of the grass-roots women political activists? They feel, even more, that the party echelons are locked tight by male participation. The discrimination even extends to male party workers not allowing women orators access to the podium to deliver speeches during the election campaign.
For the first time, the new Nepali Constitution, promulgated on 9 November 1990, has included specific provisions for ensuring a basic minimum representation of women in both houses of Parliament. (It should not be forgotten, however, that women were not represented in the Constitution Recommendation Commission headed by Justice Bishwa Nath Upadhaya). Article 46(1) provides for the compulsory representation of at least three women among the 60 members of the National Assembly (Upper House). As for the Pratinidhi Sabha (Lower House), Article 112(3) requires that during elections, political parties must reserve at least five per cent of the total seats for women.
Unfortunately, during the election campaign, the attitude of both the Nepali Congress and the leftist party apparatus towards this progressive, constitutional provision was not encouraging. Both the Nepali Congress and the CPN(UML) put up the minimum required female candidates to stay within the five per cent rule. Their inclination was to remain within the letter of Article 112(3) but not its spirit. This was not the intension of those who framed the Constitution. Female activists of both parties were fielded in constituencies where the parties considered themselves weakest.
Out of a total of 20 parties contesting elections for the Pratinidhi Sabha, 15 fielded women candidates. Out of 1345 candidates, 80 were women, among whom eight were independents. Out of the 80 candidates, only seven won, five from the Nepali Congress and two from the UML. Three women have been nominated into the Rastriya Sabha, the Upper House, two from NC and one from CPN (UML).
In the, latest Rastriya Panchayat house, out of a total of 140 members, eight were women. However, only three women were elected (together with 109 men). The remaining five were nominated by the King.
Why was there such a high percentage loss for women candidates during the elections ? According to Mina Pandey, Nepali Congress MP, “We were given fixed programmes with fixed places to campaign from. We were not given a choice.” Uma Adhikari (Nepali Congress) adds, “We were given very little time to organise our campaigns.”
Almost as if the election results provided a taste of what was to follow, the Nepali Parliament, as soon as it opened, nose-dived into inter-party bickering in which issue-based debate such as on women’s rights had no chance. Some women MPs have articulated this frustration and feel that a joint women’s voice is necessary if their demands are not to be swamped in the harsh glare of party politics. “I think it is necessary for us to have a joint voice for women in the House,” says Adhikari of the Nepali Congress. “In the Upper House, the Nepali Congress and the UML have agreed to jointly look into the problem of prostitution, since this is the common issue,” says Asta Laxmi Shakya of the CPN (UML). Maiya Shrestha(Nepali Congress) adds: “Women have to demand their rights, men will not come and present them to us.”
During a recent one-day workshop relating to the responsibilities of elected women in Parliament, all members assured the audience that they will raise their voices for the upliftment of women by focusing on education, health, wages, employment, and trying to affect changes in existing discriminatory laws. But the fact is that in the House they are representing their parties first and not their gender.
|Political Party||# Women Candidates||Total # Candidates Fielded|
|United Marxist Leninist||9||177|
|Rastriya Prajatantra (Thapa)||9||163|
|Rastriya Prajatantra (Chand)||8||154|
|Nepal Communist Party (P)||9||75|
|Nepal Sadbhawana Party||5||75|
|Nepal Rastriya laninorcha||3||50|
|Nepal Majdur Kisan Party||2||30|
|Nepal Communist Party (Verma)||4||35|
Chitrakar is a journalist based in Kathmandu.