Nepal held its first democratic elections in 1959, as a result of which Dwarika Devi Thakurani of the NC became the country’s first female parliamentarian. Thakurani served as deputy minister of health and local governance in the council of ministers led by B P Koirala, Nepal’s first female Cabinet member.
In subsequent years, the number of female MPs increased steadily mainly because the interim constitution after 2008 stipulated that women make up one-third of the total candidates.
But after 2008 the party brass changed the rules to 33% women required to win the election, as opposed to running for office. This removed any stipulation concerning direct elections, which prompted them to field women in large numbers under the proportional system in 2017.
Indeed, Article 38 (4) of the Constitution stipulates that women have the right to participate in all bodies of the state based on the principle of proportional inclusion. Additionally, Article 84 (8) requires that at least one-third of the members elected from each political party represented in the federal Parliament should be women.
This is reflected in the provincial election result of 2017 as well. 189 women were elected to provincial assemblies — 17 of those leaders through direct elections and 172 through the proportional representation system. So while 34% of women won in the provincial elections, fulfilling the constitutional provision, only 5% of the candidates elected under the FPTP system were women.
Women MPs complain that the national and provincial halls of power have been such that leaders elected under the proportional system are seen by their directly-elected colleagues in parliament as less qualified and less deserving to be there. This has created a chasm between lawmakers elected under different systems.
Read also: Is democracy too expensive for Nepal?, Laxmi Basnet
This discrimination directly affects women, who are mostly elected through the PR system, as planning and budget distribution are directed towards constituencies that have powerful, directly elected leaders.
“We sit alongside each other, and we have been elected to do the same job, but we have been given second-class status because we were not elected directly like they were,” says Chanda Chaudhary, a Loktantrik Samajwadi Party MP.
Political parties also sideline women leaders for their perceived inability to ensure campaign financing. Politics of patronage means that powerful businessmen and contractors donate to the campaigns of leaders. Election Observation Committee reports have shown that campaigning expenses were vastly underreported in 2017.
“It is taken for granted that men will be able to run while we are asked about our ability to raise money,” says National Assembly member Jayanti Devi Rai of the CPN Unified Socialists. “The electoral system is flawed and costly. We need to look at financing protocols such that candidates can stand regardless of their financial status.”
All these hurdles have forced Nepal’s female leaders to re-evaluate the way they present themselves, and what kind of message they put across.
“Nepal’s centres of power are patriarchal, so that women are forced to act like men to be noticed and to rise up the ranks,” says Maoist Centre MP Anjana Bishankhe. “Why can’t I contest elections on women’s agenda and women’s issues as my foremost priority?”
Nepal’s female elected officials gathered last week to demand 50% election participation, up from the current requirement of 33%.
“There is no shortage of smart, capable female leaders ready to directly compete in elections,” says Joint General Secretary of the NC Mahalaxmi Upadhyay. “All the women considering election runs can and should demand constituencies within their parties to contest the upcoming elections.”
Read also: Women leaders seen, but not heard, Shristi Karki