Nepali Women in Politics: Challenges to Substantive Representation | Aakriti Ghimire

Aakriti is a writer and an aspiring lawyer, who is currently working as a journalist at The Kathmandu Post.

Politics has long been considered a space exclusive to men, even today. While a few women have managed to make it to the top, the world’s gender parity index for 2020 remains high. Nepal’s Global Gender Gap Index has a score of 0.680, and ranks 101st in the Global Gender Gap Index, compared to the the world average index of 0.686. However, Nepal ranks 59th for the political empowerment subindex with a political empowerment score of 0.227.

Statistics demonstrate that a significant 32.7% of the Nepali parliament consists of women, however only 14.3% of women hold ministerial positions. Does this imply that women in parliament are only granted seats to ensure representation in number, rather than in action?

To understand and explain the representation of women in politics in Nepal, I delve into theories of Pitkin, to explain descriptive and substantive representation, thereby analyzing it in the context of Nepal.

Descriptive Representation vs Substantive representation 

To understand the political roles played by women, Pitkin argues that there has to be a distinction between descriptive and substantive representation. 

When the representative resembles those being represented, then that representation is considered to be descriptive. The emphasis is placed  on whether the representative has common interests with or shares certain interests with the population being represented.

On the other hand, under substantive representation, the emphasis is on the activities of the representative –– whether the activities conducted and policies put forth by the representative are in the interests of the represented . In other words, descriptive representation emphasizes who the representatives are, and substantive representation focuses on what the representatives do.

Pitkin introduced the two concepts of representation to demonstrate that mere numerical representation of women in politics does not lead to the advancement of feminist policies; descriptive representation does not equal substantive representation. 

Post-conflict Women’s Descriptive Representation in Nepal

In November 2006, the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) led to the official end of ten years of armed conflict by overthrowing years of the monarchy. About 30-40% of the combatants in the decade-long conflict, were women. Although women played a crucial role in the conflict, women’s representation failed to materialize in the post-conflict era – not a single woman was included in the peace negotiations and the peace accord barely acknowledged women’s concerns.

‘At all the political negotiating tables I have seen in Nepal during the peace process, not once have I seen a woman at the table.’

The CPA led to the formation of the National Monitoring Committee to develop a new Interim Constitution, where two out of 31 members were women. After constant pressures and lobbying from women in political parties and civil societies, two more women were incorporated alongside a member from Dalit [marginalized] community. In the elections held in April 2008, women held around one-third of parliamentarian positions and four ministerial positions out of a total of 24. 

Between 2008 and 2020, Nepal has seen a change in its government ten times. With the exception of Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, none of the former Prime Ministers have met the mandate of 33% women’s representation in cabinets or ministerial positions.

On May 14, 2017, local elections were conducted in Nepal, which demonstrated a historic result with 40.9% women being elected to various posts within the local government. The 2015 Constitution of Nepal enforced gender quotas for various levels of government and the Local Election Act further mandates that each local ward have a minimum of two women – including one Dalit woman. The Act also mandates that political parties must have one female candidate at least for either the mayor or deputy mayor of a municipality. It consequently led to the election of 14,332 female representatives out of 35,042 local government representatives. 

In these ways, the adoption of a ‘quota’ has played a substantial role in the descriptive representation of women. The election of 40.9% of women representatives, however, is based on sharp caste distinction, with 47.4% of Dalit women being elected solely because of the reserved seats for them. Beyond those quotas, Dalit women’s presence is almost negligible in the political arena as their presence is concentrated  in the ward levels. The position of deputy mayor, however, is occupied by 91% by women primarily from Khas-Aryan [upper-caste] backgrounds. These inequalities in political representations are a manifestation of historical and prevailing power structures and hierarchical social relations. 

A report by South Asian Partnership (SAP) International asserts,

‘Because of the quantitative reservation and proportional participation, the number of women representations in the political structure has sequentially increased. However, corresponding qualitative improvements in women’s participation are yet to happen.’

While the Election Commission (EC) has mandated that each political party has a minimum of 33% women, Bhattarai writes that all four national parties of Nepal have about 17-20% of women’s representation. This is a clear violation of Article 283 of the Constitution. Despite this, no action has been taken against the political parties and neither have the parties made efforts to make them inclusive. 

Bodies such as the Election Commission (EC), Public Service Commission (PSC), Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have poor female representation. No constitutional body is headed by a woman. Women’s roles have been confined to deputy mayors, deputy chiefs and in roles with minimum political power. 

Nevertheless, Nepal has had women leaders in prominent posts in recent years, such as Sushila Karki as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (April-July 2016) and Onsari Gharti Magar as the Speaker of the Parliament of Nepal (2015-18). Moreover, the  current President of Nepal, Bidhya Devi Bhandari, has been serving since 2015.

However, out of 25 councils of ministers, the current KP Oli led government has only three female ministers. Ironically, the Ministry of Women, Children, and Senior Citizens have been handed over to a minority-representative male political leader.

Despite having 32.7% of women’s presence in the parliament and 40.9% female representation in local governments, it is evident that women have only been provided with their positions to fulfill the quota requirement. The quota system has aided in increasing the descriptive representation of women.

“If the government won’t have implemented this compulsory quota system, none of the women would have been sitting here as elected members. They are here to just fill numbers and fulfill the quota requirement of political parties. They are sitting idle.”

Hence, the  belief that post-conflict contexts provide opportunities for women to come to the forefront of political decision-makinglargely failed to materialize in the Nepali context.

Advancement of Women-friendly Policies in Nepal

Women’s descriptive representation isn’t sufficient in tackling gender imparity; it requires substantial representation with many feminist policies being pushed forth in the agenda.

To analyze if the descriptive representation of women in Nepal has translated to substantive representation or not, I discuss the parliamentary debates in the last 12 years on four prominent issues that affect women: 

a. Citizenship Amendment Bill – August 2018

Under the current Citizenship Act of 2006, any foreign woman who marries a Nepali man immediately qualifies for Nepali citizenship. However, a child cannot acquire citizenship by descent from their mother, thereby institutionalizing patriarchy and patrilineality. This has rendered many Nepali citizens stateless. An amended bill has been contested in the parliament for the past two years, with the parliamentarians constantly bringing the sovereignty debate, consequently curtailing the freedom of Nepali women. 

b. Domestic Violence (Offence and Punishment) Act, 2009

The Bill for this Act was proposed in 2002, and after 7 years of contesting in the Parliament, this Act was passed in 2009. This act defines domestic violence, domestic partnership, criminalizes domestic violence, and outlines the procedure of filing a complaint, compensation to be received by the victim, and the punishment for the perpetrator (2009).

c. Chhaupadi Pratha – 2005; 2017

Chhaupadi pratha is the abandonment of menstruating women and girls to menstrual huts with various restrictions on their social mobility and daily chores. In 2005, the Supreme Court outlawed Chhaupadi. Despite that, the number of deaths of women due to the continuation of the practice led to the criminalization of the practice in 2017– under the Civil and Criminal Code– wherein an individual who forces a woman to practice will be jailed for up to 3 months and can be fined up to  3,000 Nepali rupees. The first arrest was made in 2020, and yet, Chhaupadi is still practiced religiously.

d. Criminalization of Marital Rape – 2017

In 2017, the Parliament of Nepal adopted the Criminal Code Bill, which defined marital rape as a criminal offence. The crime is now punishable for up to five years in jail. 

An increase in the number of female legislators can be correlated with greater attention provided to women’s issues at the early stages in the legislative process. However, this attention fails to manifest in the adoption of legislation.

We have observed this with the reluctance to amend the citizenship bill. The Domestic Violence Bill took 7 years to translate into an Act. Similarly, the various other bills and laws had to deal with a lot of reluctance before solidifying as laws and acts. In the 12 years following the conflict, the number of female-friendly policies adopted are significantly low compared to what can be expected.

Analysis of the Gap Between Descriptive and Substantive Representation in Nepal

Women who entered politics in Nepal came from various occupational backgrounds and lacked formal education. Statistics indicate that about 65% of female parliamentarians who held office [2007-12] did not have any university degree. About 6% of women who were elected were housewives, 26% working-class women, 6% in public service, 29% in “talking professions,” 2% in a specialized profession, 28% were career politicians and 4% women were businesspersons.

Parliamentarians’ education and occupation play a major role in entry-level as well as to sustain in the system of politics. With the majority of women being formally uneducated, it creates a structural barrier for women to thrive in the political arena.

Another major problem affecting women’s substantive representation are deeply entrenched patriarchal social norms.The complex socio-cultural context in Nepal, with its caste hierarchies, deep-seated gender expectations, divisive ethnic problems, religion, and class creates further difficulties for women to sustain in the system –– because each social construct aforementioned feeds off by dominating women. Women’s identities often clash – the primary caregiver vs a political leader – with their domestic roles seemingly being heavier over their political identities.  

Women working at the Ward level do not get a salary apart from transportation reimbursement. This further deems their unpaid political work unimportant at the family level. Not only that, but it also becomes burdensome for women who have financial difficulties. Furthermore, women aren’t familiar with the paperwork to file for reimbursement or with applications to advance cash for official use. Financial difficulty also keeps women from running for higher leadership positions as they aren’t able to fund their political campaigns.

While women have explained their barriers to sustain in the system after having been allowed to enter, through the quota system, the lack of distribution of unpaid care work or household works with their spouses or family members have only increased their workload. Women are expected to fulfill both – household chores and their political commitments – which put them in a more difficult situation. 

Women face a lot of different issues depending on the location in Nepal, for instance:

  • Rasuwa – allegations of witchcraft, violence against women, and child marriage 
  • Surkhet – polygamy, chhaupadi, and child marriage
  • Dhanusha – domestic violence, women having to put on veils
  • Kaski – illiteracy

This indicates that the problems faced by women in Nepal aren’t centralized, instead contextualized. Hence, it is important to understand the context of where the problem arises to be able to explain the lack of substantive women’s political representation. 

Women representatives in Janakpur forthrightly admitted that they weren’t aware of their rights, which made it further difficult for them to fight for their rights. Women have normalized sexist behaviours and have internalized misogyny. The lack of awareness of their rights hinders their abilities to fight for them. This indicates the lack of structural foundations of the state to uplift the social and political status of women. It screams for reformation.

Conclusion

In the last 12 years, women’s rights have been developed and it has strengthened legally and socially. However, there is no clear distinction as to what aided this development – democracy or women’s increased descriptive representation in politics. This is a very crucial distinction to be made in further analyzing ways to increase women’s substantive representation.

A lot of structural frameworks – such as education, employment opportunities, and financial literacy – have to be developed for women’s substantive political involvement. Women have to be made aware of their rights and capabilities. The appropriate intervention would be to understand the contextualized needs of local women, their problems, and then to provide appropriate training to those women accordingly. Women have to be equipped with required training, education, and skills – financial and budget management training, leadership and women empowerment training, law, constitution and regulation training, public speaking, and communication skill development training – in order to have  action-oriented women empowerment. 

To what extent women’s political representation has been successful is still an understudied subject in Nepal. While the gap in research prevails, it is evident that there are a lot of barriers in translating one to the other. Unless these barriers are addressed and women are empowered to envision an alternate reality of an equal and equitable world, women’s substantive representation will be equivalent to castles in the air.