In the era prior to 1951 lack of education was a universal phenomenon; indeed it was (and is still) used as the reason why Nepal was not ready for a participatory political system. Before the invention of literacy and formal education, how did human civilizations progress? One addresses this point because it is the point concerning lack of education/literacy that is used continually to deny women equal access to avenues of development as a whole. If, being uneducated, the men of Nepal have a right to democratic participatory processes, what right does a patriarchal system have to deny women this right?
One early awakening occurred in 1917, in Siraha, when a Women's Committee with 8 members and 2 secretaries was formed. The driving force behind this committee was Krishna Prasad Koirala, the man whose family was to found the Nepal National Congress the father of B.P., Matrika, and Girija Koirala. In one and a half years the Committee was disbanded and its members fled into exile. The Rana rulers claimed that the Committee had been a front for antigovernment activities, although its stated objective had been to reform a lot of women.
The current generation may view with some irony the fact that Krishna Prasad Koirala's two wives were on the committee and that, within a latter-day gender perspective, its contribution to women's upliftment could be viewed as negligible. Notwithstanding, it engendered a spark that continued to burn, although no other women's groups emerged again until 1946.
These emerging groups were the Adarsha Mahila Sangh (Model Women's Organization) founded by Rebanta Kumari Acharya. Her forceful personality and courage welded the organization into an important underground link between incarcerated political leaders in Nepal and Nepali Congress Party members in exile in India. Rebanta Kumari's group was to be followed in 1947 by one founded by Mangala Devi Singh, this was the Nepal Mahila Sangh. The husbands of Rebanta Kumari and Mangala Devi (viz., Tanka Prasad Acharya and Ganesh Man Singh) were in prison at the time these groups were founded, and we might, from this, infer a definite pattern of crisis evoking responses leading to the political participation of women.
In a historical perspective of women’s political actions in Nepal, it is important to remember that the thought of women's rights, women's development/status, whatever we choose to call the move towards equity, emerged partly as a result of political crises. Yet, the very political ideals to which the families of these women ascribed (and ascribe) should in themselves have been (be) ideals of women's equality. There was only no cultural or customary precedence for women's involvement in politics at that time, men's involvement was also viewed as anti-national (read antigovernment, which may or may not be the same thing!), In fact, the status of women was abysmally low and these women were acting out of character with defined cultural expectations. In Mangala Devi's group, furthermore, were women whose names were to become synonymous with women's advancement in Nepal, viz., Punya Prabha Devi Dhungana, Sahana Pradhan, and Shanta Shrestha. In 1948, they led a delegation to' the then Rana Prime Minister, Padma Shumshere, to demand the vote for women when eventually he established (as he intended to) a Panchayat System of government.
Later in 1949, the Nepal Mahila Sangh took to the streets in support of the Nepali Congress Party and many women were put under house arrest. In retrospect, it is ironic to remark that at no time in Nepal's history has there been a street movement initiated by men to support women's rights!
Other women's groups emerged, some for political, some for educational purposes. Notable was the Terai group led by Tara Devi, established in 1938 after a public meeting in Raxaul to discuss women's rights and schools for girls. It called together a meeting in April 1949 of eleven Terai women's groups. Unfortunately, this group operated from Raxaul, over the Indian border, and it established its headquarters in Birgunj only after the democratic changes of 1951 and the establishment of an interim government. Punya Prabha Devi Dhungana and Tara Devi Sharma had discussed amalgamation when Punya Prabha was the leader of the 'All Nepal Women's Organization'. The two leaders met in Kathmandu but nothing ever came of the proposed amalgamation. Nonetheless, Tara Devi was prominent enough to be nominated to the Second Advisory Assembly in 1955 and was instrumental in tabling a "Nepal Marriage Bill' which addressed the problems of polygamy, women's property rights, rights to divorce, and many other issues concerning the status of women.
Between 1950 and 1960, women's organizations were extremely active. Their activities, however, took a definitive swerve towards social service.
Mangala Devi's group was to move from the political arena into social service during the decade (1950 - 1960) to bring about women's education and rectify social injustices. Into the arena came the Women's Voluntary Service founded in 1952 by Princess Princep Shah, daughter-in-law of King Tribhuvan. Princess Princep was Chairperson, and Kamal Rana was the General Secretary. Kamal Rana was to become the first Vice-Chair of the First Parliamentary General Assembly.
By 1958 amalgamation had taken place between Princess Princep's Women's Voluntary Service and a women's religious group 'Arya ' and the women's organization known as the 'Samyukta Nari Samiti' or 'United Women's Front'. Punya Prabha was the chairperson of this particular group, Kamal Rana, the Secretary, and Rebanta Kumari Acharya, the Membership Secretary. It was a formidable group. Many, however, believed that Punya Prabha would be weakened by the influence of Princess Princep Shah and boycotted it. In any event, it lasted only a year and by 1960 all groups were involved in what they called 'social work'. They launched appeals to foreign governments and Nepali authorities for sewing machines, health equipment, and loans, not for political literacy!
In 1960, King Mahendra abrogated the Constitution, and the Panchayat System established as a 'Partyless Democracy'. The Nepal Women's Organization (NWO) as one of the class organizations of the system, absorbed the previous women's groups and Bimala Maskey was elected the first Chairperson. From its institution, until the Referendum of 1980, the Nepal Women's Organization existed, was organized, and operated as a quasi-political, quasi-social service body according to the principles of the ubiquitous Panchayat System. Women had, once more, become part and parcel of the political ideologies run by men with the best interests of the upper echelons of the patrilineal superstructure as major concerns.
The Nepal Women's Organization, until 1980, could return its leader to the National Panchayat and it did have charismatic leadership - Bimala Maskey, Punya Prabha Devi Dhungana, Kamal Rana, Indira Shrestha, Kamala Neupane, and later, Sushila Thapa, to name a handful. After the 1980 Referendum, the Women's Organization no longer had rights to return its members to the National Panchayat. It was purely a social service organization; its biggest baby being the Women's Affairs Training Centre in Jawalakhel which had been established in 1955 with the help of the United States' Assistance Programme. Later, in 1960, it was brought into the Panchayat System as a principal focal point for linkages with rural women.
The Nepal Women's Organization had great opportunities in its time. It covered the 75 districts of Nepal and had 60,000 members. Local members raised their own funds, however, and, as a result, where the needs were greatest, there was a shortage of money. One fundamental shortcoming was that, although there was a provision for representation at the national level, there was no provision at village or district levels; women had to get on to these bodies on another ticket. For women at the grassroots' level, there was only a very remote chance that they would ever get to represent women in the political arena
International Women's Year (1975) was a big landmark, if only because, in retrospect, it appears to be the point at which the real exchange of political activities for social service (viz., women's development) took place. The year after (1976) was marked by the Class Organization Act and this, rather than anything else, opened avenues of representation at local levels for women.
Theoretically, it meant that 4,000 women could be in local government at any given time. Practically it didn't happen; although by 1995 this period did appear to have elicited more women's representation than any other, on the whole, women's representation was meager. It was difficult to get women to fill the seats reserved. After the Referendum, the Nepal Women's Organization lost the privilege of being the principal avenue for women's political representation entirely.
Many women who emerged as leaders or grew up during the Panchayat era were still women leaders afterward. The late Sahana Pradhan became Minister of Foreign Affairs, the late Shailaja Acharya was the first woman deputy prime minister in 1995. In her 20s she spent several years in jail for political activism. Between 1995-2017, the government has done some window ‘dressing’. Chitra Lekha Yadav became Education Minister for a while and the young, dynamic Shashi Shrestha became Minister of Health. We now have a woman chief justice and a judge, not to mention a woman President. So far so good. Yet whatever happened to the enthusiastic women who followed Panchayat NWO leaders such as Kamal Shah, Punya Prabha Devi Dhungana or Kamal Rana? My conclusion is that the usual happened. These women were eventually submerged in political parties and projects run by men. Now they are busy rescuing and giving shelter to trafficked women. There is much to be commended in that but it would have a greater political impact if women came together to name and shame the patriarchy behind the trafficking. On that day the women of Nepal will truly have come into their own!