Challenges & Crossroads: Women Navigate Nepal's Political Maze

Challenges & Crossroads: Women Navigate Nepal's Political Maze

June 16, 2024, 8:45 a.m.

With the increased number of female candidates in the 2017 elections there has been a glimmer of hope towards the advancement of gender equality and women’s representation in Nepali politics. In a country where 51.1% of the population is female, the vast gap between this demographic and women's representation in politics questions democracy and inclusivity. Does the rise in female candidates signify genuine empowerment and representation, or does it conceal deeper systemic barriers hindering women's political power?

In a concerning revelation, the country's constitutional provisions for women's empowerment through political quotas have been exploited by political parties for their vested interests. Despite regulations mandating gender inclusivity in leadership roles, loopholes are being manipulated, allowing for the avoidance of these crucial measures.

The gravity of the situation is highlighted by recent findings from the GESI report on the 2079 B.S. local level elections. Shockingly, out of the 135,409 candidates fielded by political parties, only a fraction were women. Even more alarming is the fact that despite directives requiring a significant number of women and inclusive candidates, the reality fell short by a wide margin. With only 6,823 women candidates out of a potential 29,160, it's evident that gender parity remains a distant goal. Additionally, in Manang'sNaarpaabhumiGaupalika, no Dalit women candidates ran for office, and Ward No. 1 had no female candidates. According to the GESI report, there were 5,949 male mayoral candidates compared to 384 female candidates, and 1,055 male deputy mayoral candidates versus 3,080 female candidates.

This disparity only deepens as we climb the political ladder. Data from the official website of the Office of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers paints a bleak picture, revealing that out of 24 council members, a mere five are women. The underrepresentation of women in such critical decision-making bodies is not just a statistical abnormality but anindication of systemic inequalities.

Even in the House of Representatives, where diverse voices should be heard, the stark gender imbalance persists. With only 93 out of 274 parliamentarians being female, it's clear that women continue to face significant barriers in accessing positions of power and influence within the political landscape.

In Nepal, much like in many South Asian nations, a deeply entrenched patriarchal system persists, with its ideologies so deeply woven into the societal fabric that even the next generation unconsciously internalizes them, despite being cognizant of their adverse effects.

Efforts to shift this paradigm are underway, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that such change may necessitate a generational overhaul. The adage 'It begins at home' rings true, as many young girls unwittingly absorb societal roles by observing familial and societal dynamics. From a young age, the male figures—fathers, grandfathers—are often the ones engaged in consuming news, a pattern that seamlessly passes down to subsequent generations.Therefore, the challenge lies not only in breaking the cycle of patriarchal norms but also in redefining societal perceptions of women's roles within political spheres, a task that requires concerted efforts and a reevaluation of deeply ingrained societal constructs.

Across many communities, a prevalent belief persists: politics is a dirty game, a notion deeply ingrained in the psyche of countless women. This perception, rooted in societal norms, often dissuades family members from championing the political aspirations of their mothers, sisters, daughters, and other female relatives.

In many households, discussions surrounding political involvement are overshadowed by cautionary tales of the pitfalls and perils of political life, further cementing the belief that politics is a domain best avoided by women. A study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union surveyed 55 women parliamentarians from 39 countries, revealing that 61.5% experienced violence, with gender being the primary motivation. Additionally, 41.7% cited political rivalry as a contributing factor. Consequently, despite the potential for transformative change, countless capable women are deterred from pursuing political aspirations, trapped within the confines of societal expectations and entrenched gender roles.

The perpetuation of stereotypes exacerbates existing challenges, as women are often perceived to lack leadership skills compared to men. This ingrained notion not only impacts women's self-perception but also influences the mindset of voters and election gatekeepers, typically male political party heads. The UNDP's 2023 report, "Breaking Down Gender Biases: Shifting Social Norms towards Gender Equality," unveils the Gender Social Norms Index (GSNI). Covering 85% of the global population, it reveals that nearly 9 out of 10 individuals harbor biases against women. Shockingly, almost half of the world's populace believes men excel as political leaders compared to women.

Cultural expectations, family obligations, societal pressures, stigmatization, character assassination, socialization, and violence against women all exacerbate the gender gap in politics. A significant contributing factor is the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work shouldered by women in Asia and the Pacific, where they spend 4.1 times more time than men on such responsibilities. This imbalance limits women's capacity to extend themselves beyond domestic duties, given the time-consuming and energy-draining nature of caregiving tasks.

To address this systemic challenge, it becomes imperative to challenge ingrained perceptions of politics and foster an environment that empowers and encourages women to actively engage in political discourse. Only through dismantling these barriers and fostering inclusive spaces can the voices and contributions of women be fully realized within the political landscape."

In addition to cultural and societal barriers, the economic dependency of women poses a significant obstacle to their participation in politics, further widening the gender gap in political representation. The financial burden associated with campaigning often dissuades economically dependent women from considering political involvement, as they lack the resources to fund their campaigns independently. This struggle for economic independence is compounded by the prevalent gender norms surrounding land and parental property ownership, which often favor men. Historically, women have been relegated to the role of passive beneficiaries rather than active participants in economic development.

Evidence from a report by the Asia Foundation underscores this disparity, revealing that while 88% of women representatives engage in various economic activities. Many elected women leaders cite involvement in agriculture, yet the question arises: are they earning from these endeavors or merely shouldering additional unpaid labor alongside their caregiving roles?

Many women often express disinterest in politics, claiming it's not their area of expertise and that they lack a political stance. Within this silence lies the paradox: every silence is a choice, every apathy a vote for the status quo. In the tapestry of existence, politics threads its way through the very fabric of our being, weaving together the narrative of our lives. To declare indifference is to surrender the pen that scripts our collective destiny, relinquishing the power to shape our world to those who dare to speak, to act, and to dream of a brighter tomorrow.

Nepal has seen remarkable strides towards gender equality and women's empowerment in its political landscape. From Dwarika Devi Thakurani, the first Nepali woman elected to parliament and cabinet minister, to SushilaKarki, the country's inaugural female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Onsari Gharti Magar, the first female unopposed elected Speaker of Parliament in 2015, these trailblazing women have shattered glass ceilings and paved the way for others to follow. Bidhya Devi Bhandari's historic appointment as the first female president of the country further exemplifies Nepal's commitment to breaking down barriers and fostering inclusivity. As Nepal continues its journey towards progress, these milestones serve as beacons of hope, inspiring future generations of women to aspire for leadership roles and contribute to a more equitable and just society.

(Kharel is the host and producer of Inspiring Women and Global Perspectives talk shows.)

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