Print Edition - 2017-02-18  |  Women Power Up

Feminism in the margins, a Madhesi perspective

  • Madhesi women are not a topic of discussion, nor is their contribution acknowledged in the national discourse
A team that consisted of Dibya Devi Koirala, Durga Devi Dixit, Melawa Devi, Tulaja Devi and Yog Maya Koirala is believed to have started Nepali women’s rights movement

Feb 18, 2017-In the 1950s, when women’s right movement got into shape in a concentrated manner to fight for the rights of women worldwide, the ripple effects were seen in Nepal as well. As the states gathered to sign the CEDAW convention in 1979, the first such effort to end discrimination against women was made in Nepal. The committee that consisted of Dibya Devi Koirala, Durga Devi Dixit, Melawa Devi, Tulaja Devi and Yog Maya Koirala is believed to have started the Nepali women’s rights movement. The committee held awareness programmes on discrimination against women, created political awareness and conducted activities against the Rana oligarchy. 

The fight for women’s rights has been inextricably linked with the wider political current of history, with gains and losses reflected in women’s movement reflecting the ebb and flow of the democratic movement. When democracy was ushered in in 1950, the women’s movement gained momentum. In 1958, Dwarika Devi Thakurani won the parliamentary election and in 1960 became the first woman minister of the country. 

When king Mahendra took absolute power dissolving Parliament, women’s movement weakened as well. 

Women’s organisations have played a major role in the fight for democracy, as demonstrated by their significant role in the 1990 movement. After the success of the movement, 20 percent reservation for women at local bodies was ensured. This increased women’s access to politics. However, it was the Maoist’s ‘people’s war’ that created political awareness and brought women issues to the fore. The movement also motivated women to take training to fight for rights. In a 10-year insurgency, rural women who were suppressed and discriminated, were taught to raise arms to fight for their rights. 

The Madhes movement in 2007, Janajati movement, Dalit movement helped enshrine the issues of marginalized community in the constitution. Madhesi movement was a lesson for Madhesi women to fight for their rights. The second Madhesi movement of 2015 also created awareness among public to fight for political rights. 

Women’s movement is not limited to political rights. The movement has raised issues of superstition and malpractices prevalent in society. Take for example, campaign for the rights of single women, protests against witch-hunting, dowry, child marriage, Kamalari, Chhaupadi are some turn of events that created awareness and brought about positive changes. Civil society organisations have played an important role in creating awareness about superstition and malpractices. They helped the grassroots to organise and campaign for their rights.

Madhesi women’s role

Madhesi women have played a significant role in various movements to the fight against the monarchy. They have led the movement at different junctures of history, including  during Dr K I Singh-led armed revolt against the Rana regime. Kaulpati Devi played a leading role in Parasi, Butawal, Bhagawanpur and Jhande Nagar in the Nepali Congress-led armed revolt.

Some Madhesi women have paid with their lives in the fight for rights and democracy. During the movement to restore democracy in the 90s, at least three women protesters were shot dead in Dhanusa district in police firing. Janaki Devi Yadav, Bhuwaneshwori Devi Yadav, Sonawati Devi Yadav from Yadikuha were the first martyrs in the fight for restoration of democracy in 1990. 

A good number of Madhesi women also participated in the armed insurgency. Dalit and Tharu women had significant participation in the armed struggle. In the first Madhesi movement, women took to the streets. In the recent Madhes movement, six Madhesi women died. Most of the time, women led the protests to break the curfew and took out rallies even as scores were injured and detained. They also participated in blocking the border at night.  They took out lathi rally, whistle rally, plate rally and bangle rally. Never in history had Madhesi women taken part in public demonstrations like they did in the 2015 Madhes movement. 

Assessing the achievements

Women’s movement has established some rights of women. The constitution has guaranteed special rights for women, gender equality and fundamental rights for all citizens. It has acknowledged the identity of women and ensured their representation in politics and state organs. The movement has reduced the degree of discrimination against women regarding citizenship rights. It has also brought changes in the election system to increase the participation of women and marginalised community. Consequently, the first Constituent Assembly had a total of 33 percent representation of women, which came down to 29 percent in the second CA. 

The new constitution has ensured 33 percent women participation in the provincial assembly. Three out of eight nominees from each province to the National Assembly should be women. Similarly, one of two state heads should be a woman. Nepal’s current President, Speaker of Parliament and Chief Justice are women.

The state has adopted a principle of proportional representation in all state organs, which ensures 17 percent women participation in bureaucracy. This is a significant number at the policy level. The most important achievement of women’s movement is proportional representation and affirmative action. In addition to political participation, women’s representation, access to resources, women and girl child education, an increased presence of women in economic activities are significant achievements. 

Challenges for women on the margin

Despite all of these achievements, women’s movement has not yet brought equitable rights for all women. The politicisation of women’s movement has meant that women’s rights defenders have become the cadres of political parties.  They have voted against their own interests, and those of the women they are supposed to represent. They have been unable to challenge the party whip and political ideology. 

Another challenge is that women’s rights movement is driven by representatives of non-governmental organisations. As a result, donors’ agendas have often prevailed over women’s agendas, and women’s rights activists have turned into NGO employees. Women’s rights movement is captured by elite women of Kathmandu, particularly the English-speaking, educated and urban women. 

Over 70 percent women live in rural areas while the movement is run and led by urban women. Mainstream women’s movement does not capture the diversity of women. They present women as a homogenous category, due to which the issues of Madhesi, Dalit, Muslim and Janajati women have not been addressed. 

The new constitution has revoked the rights of Madhesi women regarding the citizenship provision. The citizenship provision does not accept an independent existence of women, which has reduced Madhesi women to second class citizens. People with naturalised citizenship are not eligible to hold top positions of the state.  

The mainstream women’s movement has maintained silence on proportional representation of Madhesi women in state machinery and polity. There were six clusters of proportional representation, which has now been increased to 15. This will directly affect marginalised communities. 

Still, Madhesi women are not a topic of discussion; neither is their contribution acknowledged in the national discourse.  In order to change this orthodoxy, we need to transfer the leadership of the movement to the younger generation who reflect the diversity of this country. For the women’s movement to be truly representative, we need a movement within it to mainstream the marginalised issues and push forward the agenda of change. 

- Shah, a researcher, writes on Madhesi issues

Published: 18-02-2017 09:48

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