Nepal’s women envoys make a mark

Nepal has a female president and a Constitution that reserves positions in government and legislatures to women, and in the foreign service women diplomats make up more than half the ranking staff. Five of Nepal’s 25 currently serving ambassadors are women.

During the Covid-19 crisis, Nepal’s women ambassadors have shown that they are as good as, if not better than, their male colleagues in ensuring the welfare of Nepalis abroad as well as projecting the country’s international image.  

"Society must stop judging women simply for their gender. We are not men, and we shouldn't be compared to them. Our inherent femininity, sensitivity, nurturance, emotional temperament, are our best qualities," says Nepal’s ambassador to Oman Sarmila Parajuli Dhakal, who has been praised for ensuring the repatriation of stranded Nepali workers, and bargaining with airlines to get them cheaper air fares than those negotiated by the government in Kathmandu.

In June, Dhakal personally went to Muscat airport to see off the first batch of returning workers. As of this week, the embassy had arranged seven rescue flights, repatriating 1,178 stranded workers. Between 10% to 30% of migrant workers in various Gulf states have lost their jobs, and Nepal’s embassies in other Gulf countries are struggling with the sheer numbers who want to return.

Last month, Ambasador Dhakal and the Oman Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed an agreement to lease land for construction of a permanent Nepal Embassy in Muscat, a diplomatic milestone for a Gulf monarchy that is emerging as a major destination for Nepali workers, as well as source of tourism and investment.

Anjan Shakya, Nepal’s ambassador to Israel, has also been making inroads into ensuring well-paying jobs for Nepalis, and has just negotiated an agreement with Israel to provide openings for 500 more Nepali caregivers.

"It takes a woman to understand better the problems of women. They must be brought into politics, and in policy and decision-making positions,” Shakya says. “Female political participation is crucial in addressing gender issues and bringing about gender equality. Our 2015 constitution has ensured gender balance in politics. We must abide by it.”

Ambassador Shakya is also pushing an agreement with Israel to set up Centres for Excellence in Agriculture in each of Nepal’s seven provinces as part of Nepal’s goal of food self-sufficiency. Recently, Shakya was the first Asian envoy to be named ‘Ambassador of the Year’ by the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel.

She says: “Just like a chariot needs two wheels to move, Nepal cannot move ahead if half our population is left behind. So we have to engage and involve women.”  

Even though five of Nepal’s ambassadors abroad are women, only one of them, Sewa Lamsal the out-going ambassador in Pakistan, is a career diplomat. Prativa Rana, Nepal’s long-serving ambassador to Japan, is from the RPP party and mother of Arzu Deuba, wife of NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba. Anjan Shakya and Dawa Futi Sherpa are said to be close to Prime Minister K P Oli. And as with foreign services of other countries, there is some tension between careerists and those named ambassadors by political parties.

But political appointees do have their advantages. Ambassador Dhakal, for instance, has been able to use her connections in the labour recruitment sector to focus on migrant issues. And Ambassador Sherpa, who grew up surrounded by mountaineers and tourism entrepreneurs, has used her background to organise promotional events and hopes to further strengthen cooperation between the Madrid-based World Tourism Organization and Nepal Tourism Board.  

"Nepali women have fewer economic assets, less access to finance, higher rates of illiteracy, and little knowledge of their legal rights,” says Ambassador Sherpa. “We are generally bound to responsibilities at home and have fewer opportunities than men for earning income and participating in decision making and governance."

She adds: “To attract and include more women in politics, we need to start at the very beginning: more opportunities and access to education, information, empowerment and mentorship. And while promoting gender equality in politics, we also must be aware of ethnic diversity and representation at the table."

Nepal's constitution does guarantee female representation and reservation for disadvantaged castes and ethnicities. Political parties are required to have women in one-third of positions in  federal and provincial assemblies, and half the proportional representation seats are reserved for women. If a mayor or municipality chair is a man, the deputy has to be a woman.

In 2019, all four of the national political parties Nepal Communist Party (NCP), Nepali Congress (NC), Federal Socialist Forum Nepal (FSFN), and Rastriya Janata Party (RJP) failed to meet the criteria that one third of their members be female.

In line with the constitutional requirement that the president and vice-president must be of different gender or ethnicity, President Bidya Devi Bhandari made history in 2015 as Nepal's first female head of state. She is currently one of the only 22 female heads of state worldwide.

However, the constitution has not been able to make Nepal's political sphere completely inclusive. Traditional patriarchal values persist in Nepal, most glaringly in its citizenship laws, and senior politicians and legislators often make misogynist remarks in public.

Currently, only three out of 17 ministers in the cabinet are female. A recent report shows that across Nepal, most-primary leadership positions in local governments are held by men, while most secondary-leadership positions are held by women.

Indeed, as per a 2020 World Bank report on economic empowerment of women, Nepal scored merely 73.8 points out of 100- lagging behind the global average of 75.2 points. The report examines factors such as legal rights, equality of pay, access to assets pension, etc. The 2020 Global Gender Index ranks Nepal 133rd in terms of educational attainment- only 59.7% Nepali women are literate, in stark comparison to 78.6% Nepali men.

Patriarchal norms manifest themselves in all spheres of life in Nepal: femicidechild marriageonline harassmentperiod stigmahigh maternal mortality ratesilliteracy, and trafficking. Some of these problems have become more serious with the Covid-19 restrictions.

The persistent gender gap in Nepal has been hard to eradicate despite laws and quotas. Studies and public opinion polls show that women in politics encounter more barriers, are subjected to more stereotyping and objectification, and are held up to greater scrutiny than men who are in similar positions of power. 

One example of this was Lucky Sherpa, who was named Nepal’s ambassador to Australia in 2017, but resigned on moral grounds after her own Nepali driver, whom she had fired, accused her of human trafficking. The former member of the Constituent Assembly was appointed by the then Maoist party, and her supporters said she had been framed. Sherpa herself has said she was the target of a witch hunt. 

Despite quotas, therefore, Nepali women find it difficult to maneuver in the labyrinths of a male-dominated government machinery, which is often run like an old boys’ club. Many resign, either because of mistreatment, out of frustration at being passed over for promotion, or for family reasons.

Ram Krishna Tiwari, head of the Political Science Department at Tribhuvan University, says that even among Nepali women, some are more disadvantaged than others because there are also overlapping class, caste and ethnic hierarchies.

“In the high mountains and the Tarai livelihood is more difficult, so women are more focused on putting food on the table, and surviving from day to day, than participating in politics,” he explains. “Women in the mid-mountains have a greater reach in politics, so they are more active."

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