Placing Nepali women first past the post

How to ensure systemic change for gender equity and equality in Nepal’s political leadership

Photo: Nepali Times Archive

Nepal’s 2015 Constitution is considered as one of Asia’s most progressive in promoting women's political participation and empowerment. It is one of about 70 countries to adopt gender quotas to encourage women's leadership.

Despite having achieved the 33% target in Parliament, Nepali women continue to be excluded from executive leadership positions, and are underrepresented in Parliament committees and the Cabinet. This prevents them from being involved in the decision-making process that directly affects their lives.

Genuine progress is not possible without a true effort to institutionalise the structures to uplift women and eradicate the symptoms and patterns that have historically marginalised them. Political empowerment of women requires a multi-faceted approach that addresses Nepal’s political and bureaucratic capacity while also challenging societal norms that favour men. 

According to a report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Nepal ranks 54th globally in terms of women's representation in Parliament. Women make up 51% of the total population but comprise only 33.09% of the total parliamentarians. This under-representation limits their ability to effectively advocate for women's rights and interests and contribute to inclusive development.

The current political structures and provisions such as quotas and reserved seats, have not been sufficient in ensuring equal political representation. Women face numerous barriers including cultural and traditional beliefs, economic and educational disparities, and gender-based discrimination. The lack of enforcement mechanisms to ensure implementation further undermines the effectiveness of these provisions.

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To enhance women's political representation and address the underlying systemic barriers that prevent their access to leadership positions, the government needs to revise its current legal framework, explore innovative approaches, and demonstrate a commitment to upholding the principles of democracy and gender equality. 

An effective solution would be to strive for a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system that reserves 33% of the seats for female candidates. This would promote equal representation of women in Parliament and other decision-making bodies.

Women's political representation was a major concern in the 2022 elections. Women leaders across party lines came together to express collective dissatisfaction with their parties for failing to adhere to the constitutional requirement of female participation and candidacy. They called for their parties to nominate more female leaders through FPTP rather than the proportional representation (PR) system.

This would encourage political parties to nominate more women candidates, as they would have a greater chance of winning under the new electoral system. It would also help address the issue of tokenism, as women would be more likely to be elected based on their merit and qualifications rather than being seen as mere placeholders.

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The implementation of a 33% FPTP system for women would require a constitutional amendment, necessitating the support of two-thirds of the parliamentarians. Given the importance, it would be a worthwhile effort.

A key factor that hindered women's political representation in the 2022 elections was the prevalence of coalition politics.  According to Section 17 (4) of the Local Level Election Act-2017, political parties must field a woman candidate for either chief or deputy chief at the local level. But it is only applicable when a party has candidates for both positions. 

In a case where a party fields a candidate for only one position, this provision is not applicable. 

As parties prioritise their own interests, coalition politics often results in fewer women getting nominated and hence elected. In the 2022 local elections, the electoral alliance between the NC and coalition parties resulted in fewer women being nominated. As a result, 163 local units are now headed by men, and the number of female deputies has decreased from 700 in 2017 to 564.

Tighter laws to discourage coalition politics would help to promote greater accountability and transparency in the electoral process. Parties could be prevented from forming alliances before elections, and they can do that once the poll results are out. 

The second proposal is to forbid parties from presenting an imbalanced candidacy if they form an alliance. This would prevent the parties from making backroom deals and compromising on women's representation for the sake of political gain.

Empowering women heavily depends on bureaucratic capacity. This can be achieved by increasing resource allocation to the Ministry of Women, Children, and Senior Citizen, and sending dedicated ministers to elevate its positioning in the Cabinet. By doing this the government's commitment to gender equality and social inclusion can be reflected in its policies and actions.

The Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, and Supplies can play a significant role in creating policies that are favourable towards empowering women.

To promote gender equality, existing policies need to be revised through a comprehensive approach. This includes conducting a gender analysis of policies, reviewing and revising them to remove discriminatory language, and incorporating gender-specific targets and indicators. 

Diverse groups should be involved in the process, and monitoring and evaluation mechanisms should be placed to track progress. Political literacy can also help women to gain confidence and better understand the landscape.

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We must think innovatively and focus on strategies that can be effective in both urban and rural areas. It is important to engage with women at the grassroots level and understand their unique challenges and perspectives. This can involve creating awareness campaigns on women's rights and political participation, as well as working with local leaders and stakeholders to address the barriers.

Empowering women through community-led initiatives that can address local issues is crucial. These efforts may include creating local women's groups that can advocate for women's rights and promote their participation in local governance.

By providing access to information, resources, and emotional support, networks can help women overcome barriers and challenges they face in the political arena. They can also amplify women's voices, help them advocate for change, and build alliances and coalitions with other groups.

Promoting economic empowerment through small-scale entrepreneurship and microfinance initiatives can help women gain the necessary skills and resources to become economically independent. When more women take on leadership roles in the economy, it can challenge the traditional notion that men are the sole breadwinners. This can help to break down gender stereotypes and promote gender equality. 

The practices, policies, and values of political parties can greatly influence women's participation and representation in politics. Nepali political parties have failed to demonstrate a genuine dedication to promote gender equality in actual practices. This is evident in the leadership hierarchy, selection of candidates, and policies of these parties.

Trends show that women receive insufficient support from within their own parties with a general opposition to a woman occupying executive positions, mostly among men

For instance, Kantika Sejuwal of NC says she faced continual opposition and criticism from her own party when she was vying for nomination for the mayor of Jumla despite having a strong educational background, experience, and extensive networking.

Political parties must ensure that women have equal opportunities to participate in party politics and decision-making processes. They should provide necessary resources and support to women candidates with training and mentorship, financial support, and access to information and networks.

Male solidarity is important here since men dominate political parties in number, and in executive leadership positions. They have more access to resources and command an informal authority. Men in positions of power must prioritise advocating for and actively supporting women's political empowerment.

Nisha Onta is the Executive Director and Pukar Malla is the Chairperson of the Governance Lab.