Nepali Congress Joint General Secretary Mahalaxmi Upadhyay recalls how she missed a call from a journalist because she was attending an event.
When she called back later, the reporter replied to the Member of Parliament, “I couldn’t reach the party vice-president, so I called you.”
Another time, Upadhyay was meeting the press with other women in leadership to brief them on how underrepresented female politicians were in the news media. One editor said he listened to women: he always called up a politician’s wife for inside information.
Chanda Chaudhary, an MP from the Loktantrik Samajwadi Party, recalls a well-regarded tv anchor telling her without a hint of regret that there were no women politicians worth inviting to his talk show.
Binda Pandey of the UML sees Nepali politics as a revolving door of ageing politicians — mostly male, and some female who behave like men — who are always given office as if there were no one else in the party who deserved it.
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Nepal’s women politicians have had enough. They feel so strongly about being excluded that they have banded together across party lines to share these experiences with the media. They have been galvanised into action by their parties once more trying to short-circuit affirmative action policies in the Constitution allowing greater women’s representation in provincial and federal elections on 20 November.
Women politicians are on the list, but they are not given tickets to stand for direct elections and are confined to proportional representation registers.
In the 2017 elections, 41% of locally elected representatives were female, whereas there was 34% women’s representation in provincial elections. At the federal level, the Upper House has 37% female representatives, while 33.1% of MPs in the House of Representatives are women.
The Global Gender Gap Index ranked Nepal 61st out of 155 countries in political participation, and 40th in terms of women in parliament. Nepal is currently one of only 35 countries in the world that has a female head of state or government.
Nepalis like to tout positive statistics, and the fact that we have a female president and once had a female Speaker and Chief Justice finds its way into every discourse about gender equality. While these numbers are encouraging, the ground reality of Nepali women politicians is starkly different.
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After the May local elections, only 69 out of 753 municipalities and metropolitan cities are led by female chiefs, with most women getting tickets for deputy chief positions because Nepal’s Local Government Act requires at least one female candidate between the chief and deputy chief.
Out of the 91 women in Parliament (exactly 33% as per the Constitutional requirement) only seven were directly elected, and the rest through the proportional representation system.
Women are getting into the legislative through their quota, but not through direct ballot. Nor are they given decision-making executive roles. Were it not for constitutional mandates and affirmative action policies, they might not even be in those positions.
Getting elected is half the battle. Female leaders recount how those nominated through proportional representation are seen by their male counterparts as someone less deserving and competent than those directly elected.
What this means is that women in political leadership, just like many Nepali women at home or in the workplace, are expected to be grateful that they were even allowed to enter the Parliament premises.
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Elected women face gendered condescension on a daily basis. They are second choices when it comes to interviews, opinions and media representation. Male leaders are addressed simply by their full names, or by adding जी at the end of their names, while female politicians get addressed as दिदी or बहिनि.
All this has forced many women aspiring to political leadership to speak and behave like their male counterparts, often at the expense of their femininity and identity.
Maoist Centre MP Anjana Bishankhe is fed up with women trying to make it to the top presenting themselves in a masculine way just to be considered seriously for leadership roles. “Why do I need to change to conform to the patriarchy?” she asks.
Women leaders are actively campaigning to compete directly in the election and to be given a 50% seat at the table. But they are up against the formidable patriarchy of their parties.
While voters need to be informed and vote for capable female leaders in future elections, political parties need to nominate them for competitive positions first. After that it will be up to the Nepali people to vote more women to office come November.
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