Can Nepal elections change its male-stream politics?
When we had a baby, just a few weeks ahead of the first lockdown in 2020, my husband and I had to make some difficult decisions about how to manage childcare and work. We wanted to be around our child in his initial years as much as possible, but we were also not ready to give up work.
A few things, including the pandemic and the fact that financially we were able to work part-time, permitted us to spend our child’s first year primarily as his caregivers. When I went back to work a year after giving birth, my husband continued to stay home as the primary caregiver. Which made me think, what if everyone had that opportunity?
Nepal’s family leave policies are the bare minimum, with men just getting two weeks paid leave and women two months, and an extra 38 days unpaid for every child. Many women risk losing their livelihood and their jobs when they extend their leave.
Data shows that 90% of working women are informally employed, which means they do not have formal contracts, to begin with, so their employers are not mandated by law to provide any kind of family leave.
As a young mother, I realise the importance of legally mandated family leaves for all parents, not just for white-collar professionals. But what I also realised is that while family leave is beneficial for children, and has advantages for society as a whole, it is uncomfortable for many people who have been raised in traditional families.
Issues like family leave may seem contentious in current policy discourse, but to modern women who do a disproportionate amount of housework and childrearing, and also participate in paid employment, it is of utmost importance.
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Issues like family leave and equal pay are reasons why we need more women in leadership and policy-making roles. Research and real-life situations have shown over and over that the participation of women in legislative bodies improves deliberation and decision-making.
This is not a surprise. People of diverse backgrounds are likely to have different life experiences, be affected by different problems, and see the same social issues from unique standpoints.
But the participation of women in politics improves decision-making not just regarding women’s issues, but also in matters that affect men and children. Studies have found that women in elected roles also make decisions that reflect the priorities of ethnic/ racial minorities.
There is also evidence from India that shows that women politicians invest more in health and education when elected. Women parliamentarians are also known to work more effectively across party lines through women’s caucuses and push through agendas.
In May 2020, a video of Jhowa BK, a member of the Karnali Provincial Assembly, speaking about its government’s policies and plans for the next fiscal year, went viral. It was clear from the video that BK is not a seasoned politician or an experienced orator. In the speech itself, she says she is not formally educated.
But while there was some mockery of her speech, or of the fact that an illiterate woman was an elected representative, there was widespread appreciation of BK’s heartfelt comments, and of the fact that in our provincial and local governments, we have representatives who are grounded in the realities of the people who voted them to office.
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Indeed, it is no small feat that we have representatives from diverse backgrounds in federal and provincial parliaments as well as local governments, thanks to the 2015 Constitution and our election laws.
Over 40% of the members of the local government assemblies are women. In fact, the Local Governance Operation Act mandates that every body of the local governments have representation from women. But it stops there.
The patriarchal biases that we hold, and our male-stream political parties mean that women, especially those from minority groups, are seen as less capable of leadership than men from high caste groups. We can see a snapshot of these biases in the chairs of Nepal’s 753 local governments. Only 18 of them are women.
The Local Level Election Act 2017 mandates that each political party must field one man and one woman candidate for the positions of chairperson and deputy chairperson of the local governments. Most political parties, however, fulfilled the requirement put forward by the Local Level Election Act by nominating women for deputy positions.
According to the Voices of Women Media’s Women in Leadership infographics booklet, only 7 of 293 municipalities (2.39%) have female Mayors and only 11 of 460 Rural Municipalities have female chairs (also 2.39%).
These are positions that there were no quotas for. In fact, despite an electoral system that promotes diversity in legislative bodies, over 40% of mayors/chairs and ward chairs are from dominant caste groups. We also see these biases when we look at the central committee of Nepal’s political parties.
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Similarly, despite quotas ensuring the proportional inclusion to women, ethnic minorities, and other under-represented groups in the bureaucracy and other state bodies, there are lots of nuances behind the numbers.
According to the Women in Leadership, women also are underrepresented in the upper ranks of the bureaucracy. Only four Chief District Officers and three District Coordination Officers are women (out of 77).
Women are also underrepresented in the decision-making positions of the security forces, in the higher levels of the judiciary (the Supreme Court, High Courts, as well as District Courts), and in non-governmental organisations and the media. It is no surprise then, that our problems and their solutions are seen from the male gaze.
There are also biases against women leaders within the legislative bodies/local governments, especially those who are elected through the proportional election system. They are seen as token representatives who are elected because of their demographic characteristics, as members who represent special interests because of their gender.
They are subjected to discrimination within their workplaces, and their authority on issues that are seen as mainstream, such as the economy and infrastructure are questioned even by their fellow representatives.
Because the proportional electoral system is designed to bring people from less advantaged groups into leadership roles, candidates elected through the proportional system are often less educated than their counterparts who come from privileged groups.
This makes it difficult for these women to participate confidently in deliberation. Being elected to office is only the beginning of the struggle for many women politicians.
To be sure, elected women officials are subjected to differential behaviour based on gender bias not just in Nepal but the world over. Even Angela Merkel, one of the most powerful women today who was Chancellor of Germany from 2005 to 2021 and led the European Union through many of its recent trials, has been undermined by her male counterparts, such as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. But Merkel’s leadership has also proved to much of the world that women are just as capable as men.
Part of the skepticism of women leaders comes from the fact that we see them as representing only the issues of women, but that is not true. On the other hand, it shows just how biased we are that we have that kind of discourse only in the case of women leaders.
No one questions a male politician working only for the welfare of men, because men’s issues, we have been conditioned to think, are our common issues. But the moment you bring up family leave and equal wages, you are a ‘women’s parliamentarian’.
Nonetheless, the voice of women must be raised and heard in local, provincial, and federal decision-making. As more women and candidates from minority groups are elected into decision-making bodies, their presence in the governments and their participation in deliberation and decision-making will start feeling more and more normal.
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Women who aspire to start a career in politics or move from the ward levels to the municipal levels, and from the municipal to provincial and federal levels will also see other female politicians as role models, and find mentors in more seasoned women leaders.
In fact, BK herself has mentioned in interviews that the encouragement of another female politician finally led her to speak up.
At this important moment in Nepal’s history, it is up to us whether or not we decide to have more inclusive governments at the local, provincial, and federal levels. There is no evidence that highly educated, well-spoken parliamentarians make better decisions for people’s welfare.
Historically, our heavily male and ‘high-caste’ legislators have not prioritised formulating policies that reduce gender, class, and caste disparities, nor they have been unable to develop frameworks to promote sustainable economic growth, promote the health and education infrastructure, and create functional social security.
Having more diverse and representative parliaments and local governments will therefore add dimensions to the deliberations that happen in our legislative bodies, and result in better decision-making.
Come May, we will have to decide whether our elected bodies should resemble a little bit more like our society, or whether the same Ram, Shyam, and Hari Uncles continue making decisions for the whole lot of us, even though our problems and priorities are widely variable.
This time, ward-level minority leaders might file their candidacy for a municipality chair or deputy. Women and minority leaders who were elected in the last election may file their candidacy as FPTP candidates, or as independent candidates if their parties refuse to give them a ticket.
This is our chance to make our local governments look more inclusive and less tokenistic.
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Aditi Adhikari is an educator and education policy researcher/consultant based in Kathmandu