Women Representation in Politics Merely Tokenism in Nepal

Credit: Tevaprapas / CC BY-SA

Nepal, a country where decades ago practiced “Sati”, a culture which forced women to jump into the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands, now ranks number one in South Asia in the representation of women in parliament. It is also now among the eleven countries where women are holding the post of the Head of the State. The Constitution of Nepal 2015 has made it mandatory that there should be 33 per cent women in both the federal and state parliaments. Additionally, the Election Commission (EC) has obliged the political parties to implement this provision, which has greatly enhanced women’s access to the parliament.

Participation of women in politics began more than 60 years ago when Dwarika Devi Thakurani became the first woman lawmaker in 1958 and also became the first woman minister, only women out of 109 members in Nepal’s first bicameral parliament. In 1998, Nepali Congress leader Sailaja Acharya became the country’s first and only female deputy prime minister. Fast forward to 2015, Nepal elected Bidya Devi Bhandari as its first woman president. In 2016, three of Nepal’s top state positions—president, chief justice and Speaker of the House—were held by women. But the presence of women at the top, even in a position as symbolic as that of the President, has not translated into similar successes for female leaders in other state organs.

A good glimpse of women under-representation could be seen by the results of local elections held in May, June and September in 2017. The elections were conducted to elect 35,041 local representatives across 753 local federal units which included six metropolitan cities, 11 sub-metropolitan cities, 276 municipalities and 460 rural municipalities. Among which 91 percent of the elected women were given the position of deputy mayor or deputy chairs whereas only 2 percent of women among the total elected candidates, acquired the position of mayor or chairs.

Article 269 of the constitution states that, “There must be a provision of such inclusive representation in its executive committees at various levels as may be reflecting the diversity of Nepal.” Clause 15 (4) of the Political Party Registration Act says: “A political party should have at least one-third women representation in all its committees.” Despite such provisions, major political parties that brought the inclusion agenda to the political forefront only pay lip service to it and seem indifferent to the issue of women representation.

The leading political party, Nepali Congress, has 18 women in its 85 member Central Committee. Similarly, the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal, formed after the merger of six parties, has around 70 women in its 800 member Central Committee. Samajbadi Party has 52 women in the 425 member Central Committee. These are few among many other political parties which have not been able to bring adequate representation of women in their Central Committee. Likewise, observation of all the cabinets formed after 2007 shows that women representation remains extremely low. Ten cabinets have been formed after the promulgation of the interim constitution in 2007 in which none has 33 percent representation of women. Even after the promulgation of the constitution in 2015, the number of women in the cabinet has not increased significantly.

When it comes to political appointments to other state bodies, women representation is minimal as well. There are currently five commissioners including the chief commissioner at the EC, of the five, Ila Sharma is the only female commissioner. It is ironical that the commission responsible for ensuring 33 percent of representation of women in the national and provincial parliaments and in political parties, is itself not inclusive.bThe Public Service Commission (PSC), another constitutional body mandated to select public servants on an inclusive basis, also suffers from inadequate female representation. Of its six members (including a chairperson), only one — Brinda Hada Bhattarai — is female. Both these key constitutional bodies with the responsibility of implementing the nation’s policy of inclusion, are rather exclusionary.

This shows how women in our country are viewed merely just as tokens for public representation. The lack of qualified representation is viewed as a barrier in contesting elections. However, female leaders describe the argument regarding a lack of qualified women politicians as an excuse.

The trend of viewing women in the form of tokenism will be changed once qualified and deserving women speak up and demand to be heard. One such example could be of early this year when Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe becamee the only female person in Nepali politics to publicly lay claim to the post of Speaker. She did not demand for the position, saying, “I deserve this because I am a woman,” but rather for the capability and competency that she had. Although Tumbahangphe was forced to resign as Deputy Speaker to make way for Agni Sapkota for the position of Speaker, she was firm on her argument that she was as qualified as her male counterparts to lead the House. The incident exposes the fact that patriarchy is more entrenched in the Nepali society than monarchy.

When women politicians like Tumbahangphe voice their opinion to be treated as per the qualification, it is an answer to the people who say that women are not qualified enough for top positions. When qualified women like Tumbahangphe start being vocal about their rights, parties will start to take women’s political participation seriously. But for that, parties should enroll qualified female leaders. Politicians who are in power should support deserving female candidates rather than favoring their kins and factions. Right through past few decades, capable women without good political connections have been passed over in favor of less deserving candidates with good connections.

Thus, majority of women are deemed fit only for secondary roles, such as for deputy positions, and that too, simply to satisfy the inclusion provision. Top leaders seem to be under the impression that women cannot take up leadership or win elections. Their representation is merely as subordinates. Despite an increased participation of women in politics over the past two decades or so, their progress in leadership positions continues to be hindered. This proves how just abolishing a tradition that forced women to follow men dead or alive still does not bring equality. Even if our constitution has many progressive provisions, they do not mean much if they are being openly flouted to give continuity to the patriarchal status quo.

Aashiyana Adhikari is a research associate at Centre for South Asian Studies, Kathmandu, Nepal.