Oped

Strong presence of women in first CA did make a difference

- Ekantipur Report
Strong presence of women in first CA did make a difference

Mar 16, 2015-

Speaking at the ongoing 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at United Nations headquarters in New York, former US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton is said to have cited Nepal as a successful example in significantly reducing maternal mortality in the past two decades. Nepal has certainly come some way when it comes to maternal health but women still remain marginalised, with discriminatory provisions regarding citizenship, among others, being considered. A lot remains to be done. Darshan Karki spoke to Binda Pandey, Chairperson of the Fundamental Rights and Directive Principle Committee in the first Constituent Assembly (CA), about the gains of the women’s movement in Nepal and the problems that women face in politics and the workplace.

How would you evaluate Nepal’s women’s movement?

The movement has reached a stage where issues of women’s equality have been established. But we have yet to see to what extent women will receive those rights. For instance, that a Nepali woman should be able to provide citizenship to her child on the basis of her identity alone has been established. However, this has yet to be institutionalised in law. Likewise, the Interim Constitution mentions that men and women have equal rights to ancestral property. The 11th Amendment to the Muluki Ain, however, mentions that only unmarried women are eligible to receive ancestral property. Likewise, everyone agrees that there should be equal participation of women in all spheres. But this has yet to be implemented. Another issue that has been established is linked to reproductive rights—that women are free beings like men and they should have the right to their own bodies. This is mentioned under the fundamental rights section of the constitution. The 11th Amendment to the Muluki Ain also mentions that women can abort a fetus of up to 12 weeks or three months if she wants to. The existing notion of gender-based violence further points towards the need to grow out of the understanding that violence only occurs against women. This must be kept in mind while formulating laws to protect all citizens. So, women have some rights due to laws. Most issues have been established due to the women’s movement while some issues still remain constitutionally uncertain.

So how do we understand the hesitancy among leaders to allow citizenship through the mother’s name? Does this not illustrate that society has yet to internalise the fact that women are equal beings?

A huge generation gap is currently at play. If we look at how our society has progressed over time, during the life of our great grandmothers, burning women alive on their husband’s funeral pyres was acceptable. By the time of our grandmothers, it was established that that this practice was unjust. Yet, men were considered the protectors of women because the latter did not have access to ancestral property and neither were they allowed to study or earn a living. In our generation, people have begun to understand that women should be sent to schools too. To a certain extent, we have been able to establish that women and men are equal beings. Now, we are talking of the right to ancestral property for women by looking at the generation of our sons and daughters. The mentality of our top political leadership, which holds all decision-making authority, however, is similar to that of our parents’ or grandparents’ generations. They cannot say that daughters are not equal to sons but at the same time, these leaders cannot give them the rights they demand. The current fight is between the mentality of our generation and the one that went before us.

So what can women leaders do to pressure the top leadership?

The generation gap holds for women as well. Those women who currently hold top positions in different political parties have the same mentality as their male counterparts. They agree with us as women, but they are easily convinced by what the men say. Furthermore, people do not easily accept women’s leadership in politics. Many a time, we attend meetings and tell women of the way forward but they are hesitant to believe us. They go and confirm what we said with our male colleagues. People have yet to trust that the decisions taken by women will indeed be implemented in politics.

Are you implying that a mere increase in the number of women in politics will not be enough to bring about substantial change?

Marxist ideology says that for things to progress, first, the numbers must change. Then, at a certain point, the numbers will give way to qualitative change. The one-third presence of women in the first CA, for instance, did make a difference. We were able to establish women’s issues due to that numerical participation. We formed a women’s caucus and pushed our agendas of equality. But the decision-makers were all men from across the parties. When we talked to them individually, all of them agreed with us, but when we talked to party leaders seated together, they would only tell us that they have heard our concerns and would put them up for discussion, never giving a decision.

This stage that you speak of, one that will result in qualitative change for women’s rights, what will it look like for Nepal?

In case of citizenship, the change would be immediate if the constitution were to have the ‘or’ provision. Looking at data from 2065/66 BS (2009) to 2070/71 BS (2014), around 35,000 couples have gotten a divorce during this period. Even if such couples only had one child and say half of them live with their mothers, 17,500 are without citizenship. So as soon as the constitution institutes a provision to provide citizenship through mothers, they will all be affected.

With regards to participation, in 2054 BS (1998), when we demanded a one-seat reservation for women in each ward of the Village Development Committee (VDC), political party leaders asked us, “But where are the women?” When the provision was instituted, around 40,000 women were elected through the local-level elections. Now, the Election Commission itself has proposed a 40 percent presence of women in local bodies. We demand 50 percent representation, not only as members of local bodies but also 50 percent representation in positions of Chairperson and Vice-Chairperson. So the moment we have local elections, we will experience qualitative change.

Can you explain further the significance of numbers?

I had once gone to Panchkhal, Kavre to attend a women’s VDC-level meeting. Two women who had been elected at the ward-level were also present. When I asked the participants if the election of those two women had made any difference in their lives, they gave me a list of 11 different things that they could now complain about, including domestic abuse at home and alcohol-related problems, among other things. The female participants said that they would not have sought redress had the two women not been elected. So political change can be durable if it begins at the grassroots. However, as that will take a long time, our strategy should be to ensure women’s participation both at the top as well as the bottom.

Moving on from women in politics, what problems do women workers face in Nepal?

Women’s participation in formal employment is extremely limited. Second, those in formal employment encounter a glass ceiling and there is an implicit understanding that women do less important jobs while men do the more important ones. Third, while women are promoted up to a certain level, they are not entrusted with decision-making positions or roles due to patriarchal perceptions. And because a large number of women are employed in the informal sector, they do not receive the benefits ensured by labour laws. Gender-based violence exists in the workplace too. There are issues related to maternity leave and benefits. Women get 59 days of maternity leave in factories and a two-month leave in the public sector. They must go to work after that. There is no provision for child care but the government says that women need to breastfeed their children for six months.

This is creating lots of problem for women working in both the public and private sector. We need to wage a big fight in regards to this. In the draft of the constitution prepared by the first CA, we had proposed that child care should be the responsibility of local governments.

What about the participation of women in unions?

As there are few women in the workplace, their presence in unions is also marginal. Additionally, few women in managerial positions have meant that labour laws are not gender-friendly. This means workers’ unions cannot do much as they have to operate within the laws of the company.

Lastly, ‘mainstream’ feminists in Nepal have been criticised for postponing the issues of Janajati, Madhesi, and Dalit women. How would you respond to that?

There are different branches of feminism. Liberal feminism always talks of formal equality. It believes that laws should be equal and that the state should not discriminate against anyone. Once we ensure equal laws, women should then compete for what they seek. So your concern would only be applicable to the doings of liberal feminists. On the contrary, socialist feminists talk of substantive equality. They pay attention to the marginalised among women themselves and seek to bring them to the mainstream through affirmative action. They seek proportional representation of women from different groups, starting from the grassroots to the uppermost echelons of power. As liberal feminism is more dominant in Nepal, we tend to hear such criticism.

Published: 16-03-2015 07:56

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