Nepal has managed to improve the participation of women in politics, administration, private sector, and other areas of life dramatically in just a decade. But what about the important issue of participation of women in local government? How well are women represented at the local level, and how diverse is the talent pool at local elections? And most importantly, what sort of policy shifts are having a positive impact on gender, leadership and development in Nepal?
All these questions are topical in Nepal right now, where the recent elections for local governments were held in May for the first time in nearly 20 years. Up until then, the local landscape had been rather distressing. These elections, however, were markedly different from previous ones for many reasons, not least because they resulted in an unprecedented participation of women, with female candidates winning 34% of the total electoral positions at the local level. In this article I’m going to focus on the implication of Nepal’s local elections on gender.
These elections, however, were markedly different from previous ones for many reasons, not least because they resulted in an unprecedented participation of women, with female candidates winning 34% of the total electoral positions at the local level.
Many individual stories about the female candidates attracted significant media attention, with women such as Ranju Darshana paving the way for a new era in local politics. 21-year-old Ranju was the youngest candidate for the position of Mayor in Kathmandu metropolitan city. Being a mayoral candidate at such a young age was regarded as a courageous act, and many considered her candidacy as a beginning of a new era for young women in politics. Although her candidacy was merely a matter of political contestation, many of her contemporaries were inspired by her courage to compete in a traditionally male-dominated political system. Ranju scored third position with 14% (or 23,439 out of 166,000) votes, and gave new hope to many young women who up until then had been pessimistic about the state of politics and political processes in Nepal.
Ranju was of course but one example of the significant changes in Nepal, and we need to look at the bigger picture to understand the political landscape at the local level. The elections were organised to be conducted in two phases. The first phase was completed on the 16th May in which about 50000 candidates contested to hold 13556 different positions such as Mayor, Deputy Mayor and Ward Chairpersons in municipalities. Of the total candidates, about 31% were women. The second phase of elections is scheduled to be held on the 23rd of June 2017 for the remaining 461 local governments.
Before looking at the processes that enabled the increase of women elected at the local level, we should look at comparative data that shows the number of elected men and women at village and municipal councils. It appears that about 34% of women have already been elected for various positions, though fewer women have been elected for the key positions of local government than other less influential positions.
Alongside the constitutionally guaranteed principles of inclusion which state that at least 33% of the total public sector positions must be reserved for women, the Local Government Elections Act 2017 also requires political parties to nominate the candidacy of at least one female for either the position of mayor or deputy in municipal councils, and chair or vicechair in village councils. For example, if the political party is applying to compete for the position of mayor and deputy mayor in the municipality, there is a mandatory requirement for the party to nominate at least one female candidate for either of the positions. However, this doesn’t apply if the political party is applying for one position only.
Two additional provisions of the Local Elections Act work as catalysts in bringing more women in the local government landscape. These include the reservation of two ward level members for women, of which at least one seat must be reserved for a Dalit – or so called ‘untouchables’ at the bottom of the caste system. Consequently, a total of 2173 Dalit, and 2335 non-Dalit women have been elected as ward members. It is estimated that about 13% of the total population in Nepal is regarded as untouchables. As such, the election of about 46% of Dalit women in Nepal has demonstrates a positive measure to decrease this caste-based discrimination.
In addition to the mandatory provisions of the Local Elections Act, the wider support to, and expectation from, potential women politicians in Nepali society must be acknowledged. The background stories published by several news media in Nepal show that many women candidates were overwhelmingly supported in their fraternity, and many elected women have been acknowledging the contribution, support and love of their families, relatives and communities. Nevertheless, this is not the case for all, and it was also reported that some women were beaten by their husbands for refusing to withdraw their candidacy in the elections.
To sum up, the case of Ranju shows that the local elections have given platforms for women to challenge the nepotistic, male-dominated politics. Recent local elections in Nepal also show important future implications to the development of the women leadership in Nepal for two reasons.
First, recent policy measures that are specifically envisioned to facilitate the participation of women and other marginalised communities in local democracy have been proven instrumental in increasing the number and enhancing the quality of women leadership. The fact that young women like Ranju are participating in politics is promising.
Second, the relatively low number of women in key leadership positions implies that there is still more work to be done. Regardless of obligatory provisions that require at least one woman to be nominated for the key positions, many political parties showed that female candidates were elected only for secondary positions such as deputy mayor and vice chair.