By Om Astha Rai/Nepali Times
Kathmandu, May 29: When Bidya Devi Bhandari became Nepal’s first woman President in 2015, cynics dismissed her arguing that she was the widow of a political leader, it was a ceremonial position anyway, and one woman becoming head of state did not change the lives of millions of downtrodden women in Nepal.
Then, Onsari Gharti Magar became Nepal’s first female Speaker of Prliament and Sushila Karki the first ever woman Chief Justice. Nay-sayers were still unimpressed.
Now that 15,000 women have been elected to local governments in the first phase of the elections this month, even the skeptics are grudgingly nodding their heads. After all, as is said, a journey of a thousand miles has to begin with the first few steps.
“Our first female President is an inspiration for all young women, but that was mostly symbolic, now electing thousands of women to Municipal, Village and Ward Councils is much more of an achievement,” says UML leader Asta Laxmi Shakya.
As the Election Commission prepares to wrap up vote counting from the first phase, women have certainly emerged as the biggest winners. Ahead of local elections, there was speculation that political parties would violate or distort constitutional provisions to have women as either mayor, village chiefs or vice mayors and village deputies.
Political parties did try their best to prevent women from being elected to the top two executive posts in many Municipalities and Village Councils. They forged inter-party electoral alliances, effectively ending the chance of many women candidates to win major posts. As many as 21 Municipal and Village Councils have men as both mayor or village chiefs, and vice mayors or village deputies.
For example, UML and RPP forged an electoral alliance in Baglung municipality. If they had contested elections separately, both should have fielded women either for mayor or deputy mayor. The UML chose only a male candidate for mayor, as did the RPP for deputy mayor. As a result, UML’s Janak Poudel became mayor and RPP’s Surendra Khadka became deputy mayor in Baglung Municipality.
Such electoral alliances have resulted in all-male leadership in four of 10 local units of Baglung district. Even in Dolpo, four villages have men as both chiefs and deputy chiefs. Ranju Jha, President of the Parliamentary Committee on Women, says political parties are not technically in violation of election laws, but they have ignored the spirit of the Constitution.
“The Local Level Election Act 2017 just requires political parties to field female candidates for either of top two executive posts. This law does not guarantee victory of women to either of top two posts,” she says. “But forging electoral alliances to keep women out is against the constitutional spirit of inclusion.”
Even so, four municipalities and six village councils have got female mayors or village chiefs and male vice mayors and village deputies. In two local councils, women have been elected as both mayor/village chiefs.
In 263 municipalities and village councils where men are mayors or village chiefs, women are vice mayors or village deputies. Some of them are from the Dalit community, like Maina Biswakarma, the newly elected deputy mayor of Gurvakot Municipality in Surkhet.
“We feel that we have finally become equal citizens in our country,” she says.
Apart from chiefs and deputies, more than 13,000 women, including 6,500 from the Dalit community, have been elected to Ward Committees each of which is as big as the previous Village Development Committee (VDCs) and has more resources and power to carry out local development activities. But rights activists are still not satisfied about the scale of women winning in local elections.
“Women still have a long way to go,” says Amrita Lamsal of the Institute for Human Rights Communication Nepal. “But it is indeed a great start, and we will gain more in the next elections.” Parbati Bisunke has faced triple discrimination: as a woman, as a Dalit and as a Dalit woman.
She was fortunate enough to go to school along with her four younger brothers, but first had to finish household chores every morning. Her brothers never needed to work in the kitchen.
Bisunke did well in Sanskrit in class, and was recommended for a scholarship to study in Varanasi. But the headmaster rejected it saying Dalits did not need to master the language of the priesthood.
When Bisunke was chosen by the UML as a candidate in Narayan Municipality-8 of Dailekh district, she faced opposition from Dalit men within her own party who felt their contribution was undermined just because they were men.
After winning the elections last week, Bisunke thought the achievement would finally reduce ostracisation by other castes as well as by men from her own community. But at her victory rally some supporters refused to smear auspicious red vermilion powder on her face because she was a Dalit.
“It was heart-breaking but not surprising,” she told us. In some villages of the mid-western mountains of Dailekh, Dalits can buy a cup of tea at just Rs 9 while non-Dalit customers need to pay Rs 10. Dalits get a discount because they have to wash their own glasses.
“We are still treated as untouchable,” says Bisunke. “My electoral victory has not ended discrimination, but I will fight against it during my five-year tenure.”
Bisunke is one of the 2500 Dalit women who have been elected to Ward Committees of 283 Municipalities and Village Councils in the first phase of local elections on 14 May. This number will increase to 6,500 from 483 local government units in the second phase of polls on 14 June.
Three Dalit women have also been elected Deputy Mayors and seven more as Deputy Chiefs of Village Councils in results so far.
“This is revolutionary. Never before have Dalit women gained so much power in Nepal,” says rights activist Renu Sijapati. When Nepal held its last local body elections in 1997, it was mandatory to elect one woman to every ward committee. Most women elected that year went on to fulfill greater political and social responsibilities.
“This year’s local polls have given to Dalit women what the 1997 local polls gave to women in general,” says Sijapati. “This is the biggest exposure Dalit women in Nepal have ever got.”
She adds: “It is now possible for a Dalit woman elected this year to be Nepal’s first Dalit woman president in 20 years time. I may be too optimistic, but the elections have surely given us a reason to hope for that.’
Nepal’s new constitution in 2015 guaranteed that two of the five members of every Ward Committee would be female, but it was not constitutionally guaranteed that one of the two seats reserved for women would go to Dalit women.
Even when the Local Level Election Act 2017 was promulgated under the new Constitution, Dalit women still did not have one seat reserved. Jeevan Pariyar, a Dalit MP from the NC registered an amendment bill seeking reservation for one of the two women seats for Dalit women and had it passed by Parliament.
Pariyar says the 2017 local election has been like a revolution. He adds: “We often hear that it was the Maoist war that raised political awareness among Dalits, that was nothing compared to what has taken place with these local elections. Not just the winners, the losers will now prepare for the next elections, and beyond that. This will change the face of Nepali politics.”
Others are not so sure because they say that when political parties could not find suitable Dalit women candidates, they chose token Dalit women in many constituencies.
Kala Swarnakar, President of the Feminist Dalit Organisation (FEDO) says: “Given the socio-political and economic status of Dalit women, it was a given, but look at the bigger picture. This is a victory for all Dalit women in Nepal not just for the 6,500 elected members.”
To be sure, not all Dalit women are token candidates — many are educated, opinionated, articulate, courageous, and capable of influencing policy in self-governing local councils.
Just like Parbati Bisunke. She was not chosen as a candidate for her caste and gender but her involvement in advocacy for human rights for which she won three awards for supporting people displaced by the Maoist war.
Bisunke, a political science student, is asked what next. Her confident reply: “To be a Mayor or Member of Parliament in five years.”
(The featured picture at the top shows Parbati Bisunke , a Dalit who has made to a Municipa[ Council in the May 14 2017 elections)