Political patriarchy

Educating men to empower women in Nepal

The candidacy of Ram Chandra Paudel for Nepal’s next presidency backed by eight parties including the Nepali Congress and Maoist Centre this week is the latest proof (if any is still needed) of Nepal’s entrenched political patriarchy.

The series of backroom deals in the run-up to presidential elections on 9 March was meant to stop K P Oli of the UML from being all-too-powerful two-and-a-half years down the line when his party would have president, prime minister and speaker.

In this quagmire, we are losing a chance to elect a non-political president respected by all Nepalis. In the spirit of national unity and inclusiveness, it was the turn of a candidate from an indigenous community or a Dalit to be the third president of Nepal.

But what we are getting instead is another partisan figurehead who will continue the legacy of Bidya Devi Bhandari to do the bidding of a ruling party -- exactly why a ceremonial post has now become a dealmaker (or breaker).

Paudel’s presidency is probably a foregone conclusion and underscores the gerontocratic patriarchy in which a handful of superannuated incompetent and tainted men have been reshuffling the cards for more than two decades. They will not tire of mansplaining to us that they are just defending democracy and stability.

This is in direct contrast to the people’s strong show of support in the 2022 elections for young, independent leaders, the likes of Rabi Lamichhane, Toshima Karki, Balen Shah and Harka Sampang.

This is a sorry state of affairs for a country that at one time had women in the three topmost positions: Bidya Devi Bhandari as the President, Sushila Karki as the Chief Justice and Onsari Gharti Magar as Speaker.

Women also made up 33% of parliamentarians and, in the 2017 elections, women were elected to every local unit as either a mayor or a deputy mayor, or both.

While many argue that women were mostly confined to ceremonial posts or rarely got to contest the direct election, in 2022 they did not even get to be token women. Indigenous people, minorities and Dalits were even more sidelined as politicians used electoral alliances (between parties with diametrically opposing ideologies) to cheat them out of Constitutional provisions.

It is not surprising, therefore, that women are still unable to provide citizenship in their name to children while celebrities accused of rape wangle get-out-of-jail cards, and get back to business as usual.

Ironically, it is rural Nepal with its limited access to resources and low literacy rate where women are truly growing as leaders. With men away working overseas, women have taken a lead in every sector from community forestry and agriculture to school and health post management committees.

Community forestry, which doubled Nepal’s canopy cover in 25 years, is an internationally recognised model, while the Female Health Volunteers (FCHVs) program is the backbone of community healthcare in the country. In many ways, the feminisation of rural Nepal is empowering Nepali women to take charge by default.

Among the most dramatic successes of the last decades is the decline in childhood malnutrition and maternal mortality rate in Nepal, both of which are inversely correlated to increased literacy of girls.

But of late, progress has stagnated. In some areas, incidences of child marriage, malnutrition and maternal mortality are creeping up again. So, what are we missing?

Explaining to some men

Women empowerment needs men to not just accept equality, but make up for historical marginalisation. Most Nepali women are now aware of their rights and potential, many have proven themselves. But the attitude of men towards gender equity has not changed at the same rate. This can mean young men and boys unlearning the culture they have grown up with.

Homemakers are not jobless people. If all of their work was monetised, they would be the biggest earners in most families. A girl child, if given the same opportunity, can be at par, if not above her male counterpart. Educated career women have a more difficult life balancing home and work.

Only when men are educated do they respect all individuals, their choices and decisions. International Women’s Day on 8 March should not just be about women: it is about educating men, the men in our families, in our communities, and society.  

Only then can we envision a world that is just and fair to everyone. And maybe then we won't need to mark an International Women's Day anymore.

Sonia Awale

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