“We are always proud about the fact that Nepal has a female President and Speaker, but do you think Bidya Devi Bhandari, Onsari Gharti Magar or MPs and deputy mayors would have been appointed if it wasn’t mandated by the 2015 Constitution?”
This was one of many questions raised at a recent workshop on the role of Nepali women in politics. The participants, made up of young politicians, journalists, law students and other members of civil society, did not take long to answer: Of course not. If it was not for affirmative action in the Constitution, they would never have held office.
Nepal’s Constitution mandates that the country’s President and Vice-president, Speaker and deputy-Speaker of Parliament have to be of different genders and communities.
Similarly, the Local Government Election Act 2017 introduced after Nepal became federal also requires at least one female candidate between mayor and deputy mayor, as well as between chair and deputy chair of rural municipalities. Two of four elected ward council members have to be women, one of whom must be from the Dalit community.
This reservation system has ensured the largest participation of Nepali women in politics in the country’s history, with 14,329 female leaders being elected into local governments after the 2017 election.
The political participation of women was initially a response against the patriarchy, says Bagmati Provincial Assembly member Rachana Khadka. But Nepal’s political parties predictably favoured men for the top leadership at all levels of government.
This means that even though 93% of the deputy positions went to women, men made up 98% of mayors and municipal chairs. Of the 718 women elected to the 753 local structures, only seven were appointed mayors, and 11 chairs of rural municipalities. Meanwhile, 276 women were elected deputy mayors and 424 were elected deputy chairs.
Even so, Nepal’s female deputies have outperformed male mayors in driving grassroots development, delivering maternal and reproductive health services, combating social ills like chhaupadi menstrual sheds and providing prompt Covid-19 response.
Rachana Khadka put it eloquently: “Men are leaders by virtue of their position, women earn leadership through performance.”
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Many women deputies are now eager to contest for mayoral and chair positions in local elections on 13 May. A survey shows that 80% of female elected officials holding deputy positions want to run for top leadership positions this time – even though their hopes may be dashed because male leaders of the ruling coalition government have decided to divide up tickets based on patronage.
Prabha Baral, the elected mayor of Chitwan’s Rapti Municipality explains that although the presence of women in top positions is still negligible, Nepal’s political parties are trying to increase the presence of female candidates in this year’s election.
Baral’s constituency along with Syangja’s Putalibazar led by Mayor Sima Kumari Chettri were among seven local governments classified as ‘Excellent’ in a report card by the Municipal Association of Nepal. Their role in Judicial Committees in mediating local disputes has been exemplary.
Despite the optimism, there are challenges. Of the 13,311 female officials who joined municipal assemblies across the country as ward members, 6,569 were from the Dalit community. Yet, Dalit women are almost completely absent from the executive and decision-making positions. Their presence in local governments has been reduced to formality and tokenism.
Women are also less likely to secure adequate election funding than male candidates, one of the reasons being that many Nepali women still do not have independent control over financial resources.
Many women who ran for office at the provincial and national levels in 2017 say they have not even been able to pay off their election debts, or may not run for office a second time, as they struggle to finance their campaigns while men are backed by contractors and the wealthy.
Additionally, now more than ever, women incumbents and candidates must navigate the upcoming election on social media platforms as political parties use the internet to campaign. The social web is also rampant with misogynistic expression and hate speech, online trolling and threats of sexual violence. Women in positions of power are judged more harshly, undermining their achievements and authority.
Still, analysts are hopeful that more women will join the executive ranks after this May’s local elections. And hopefully there will be many more than the seven mayors and 11 chairs at present who are female. If voters cast ballots on the basis of performance, there certainly would be more women leaders.
Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.