“The goal is empowerment and independence of women”

As the world celebrates 110th International Women’s Day, Nepali Times caught up with Supreme Court Justice Sapana Pradhan Malla to discuss progress of Nepal’s feminist movement, and the legal challenges that lie ahead. Translated excerpt:

Nepali Times: How far has the Nepali feminist movement come?

Sapana Pradhan Malla: It has evolved from discourse about the right to education and property, child marriage, exploitation, harmful religious and socio-cultural practices to ‘inter-generational feminism’ where young women, men, and even children can raise their voices for the right to privacy, rights of different genders, languages, geographies and religious minorities, encompassing the rule of law and the democratic process as a whole. 

Where does Nepal stand among South Asian nations in terms of women's rights?

If we look at the Gender Development Index, Nepal tops the list of countries in Asia that have made progress in terms of women’s empowerment. Nepal’s Constitution is among the most progressive in South Asia for gender equality and the implementation of women’s rights. We have indicators to support the claim. However there are many other pressing issues, most importantly regarding citizenship, that need to be addressed.

What are these indicators?

Our 2000 study 'Discriminatory Laws in Nepal and Its Impact on Women' found 118 articles in 54 laws that were discriminatory towards women, the most explicit of which were the ones on citizenship, property, human trafficking, education, employment, reproductive health, marriage and divorce laws.

Since then, apart from the citizenship law, others have been amended. Women have been guaranteed rights to property, stricter sentencing has been introduced for those convicted of rape, marital rape has been criminalised, abortion has been made legal, and we have made legal strides to increase women's participation in the socio-political process. 

Were these achievements a result of political movements or feminist movements, or a mixture of both?

The primary credit goes to those who filed Public Interest Litigation cases in the courts, which led to them dismissing discriminatory clauses in some cases and issuing directives to formulate new laws in others.

Political movements played a significant role in women’s issues, as women actively participated in the two People’s Movements as well as in the Maoist armed conflict, because they no longer wanted to be left behind. Similarly, the unique needs of women were also brought to the forefront during the earthquake when there was a demand for birthing tents. 

The awareness brought about by political movements and national emergencies cemented their independent identities and the need to protect them, as well as giving a voice to their experiences.

What does it mean for women to see other women represented in positions of power?

Seeing women in positions of power can set a powerful and reinforcing example. In particular, Nepali women who have held the highest offices -- like the office of the President, the Speaker, and the Chief Justice -- are symbols of women rising through the ranks within unbalanced power structures. They should thus be role models for all women. If there are sensitive men in influential positions, it can also impact change that is in favour of women.

Does the feminist movement address the needs of marginalised groups?

Every marginalised community, be it in terms of language, geography, religion, or gender, faces different challenges. As such, feminism too does not reflect a uniformity of ideology among all those who identify as feminists. Indeed, we have a diversity of opinion and differ and disagree on various issues, for example the legalisation of sex work, or abortion.

In fact, the ways in which women choose to participate in the feminist movement itself may vary. Some may take to the streets, while others take the legal route and go to the courts. Others might affect change by participating directly in the political process. The point is that women should take whatever opportunity there is to raise their voices.

But whatever path they take, the goal is equality. And those of us who are in a position to affect change should work with the collective national interest at heart. 

Former Chief Justice Sushila Karki narrated her experience of feeling uncomfortable in a judicial system dominated by men at all levels.  Do you have a similar experience?

Many people are of the belief that women have no judicial or legal knowledge, and it is up to us to make sure that our work reflects otherwise. My appointment was mired in controversy, but no one questioned my judicial capability and knowledge because they were aware of my professional background.

What are biases against women in the judiciary?

There are several ways in which women’s work and experiences have been minimised and delegitimised in the judiciary. For instance, our level of education and knowledge of legal and judicial matters are frequently questioned. Secondly, women are branded too emotional, easily given to fear and weakness. Thirdly, we are subject to resentment and objectification because some people consider that women have achieved their position due to their gender and not their qualifications.

But there is also cause for optimism. At present, 70% of students enrolled at the Law Campus are female, and women consistently rank at the highest positions in the Bar Council exams. The challenge is to retain women in their professions, and unburdening women of household responsibilities and obligations will play a role in ensuring that they are able to have fulfilling careers. 

What should be the next path for Nepal’s feminist movement?

The primary need is economic empowerment and independence for women. Legal provisions and amendments mean nothing if they cannot be accessed because women are financially beholden to someone else. In addition, the legal complexities surrounding citizenship need to be resolved. It is also important that women play active roles in policy formation and decision-making. The movement should also focus on how women can advance in the fields of science and technology.

Another pressing issue is cybercrime. Given that there is no clear jurisdiction on the use of technology, international cooperation is very important. At the same time, there need to be institutional mechanisms within the country to tackle cybercrime and hold criminals to account.

But mostly, these changes will happen when we are able to change people’s perspectives. Women need to show that they are capable of doing that. Change is possible, what it requires is collective effort.

Longer, Nepali original of the interview is in Himal Khabarpatrika. 

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