26 Aug - 1 Sep 2016 #823

Power to women

Male politicians still do not believe women to be as capable and deserving as themselves
Bineeta Gurung

Those who argue that a woman’s elevation to power does not necessarily advance the interest of women cite examples of Benazir Bhutto, Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina. There were also Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher who wielded power, but chose to rule their countries with a pro-militaristic attitude that ended up serving the male-dominated establishment. It is only fair to assume that Hilary Clinton’s past hawkish approach to US foreign policy will not advance the cause of feminism. Statecraft requires leaders to act tough to prove their mettle, more so if they are women.

The same argument crops up every time there is a demand in Nepal for fair representation of women in leadership. It is said that female representation in parliament does not guarantee better lives for women across the country. Every time a woman is elected to a post of significance, her merit and competence is put into question, often attributing her elevation to ‘positive discrimination’.

The old boys’ club without whose approval it is impossible for women to enter politics is also cited. It is not a mere coincidence that most women in politics are either born into political families or are married into one. But that is not the whole truth – Nepal’s political establishment is sexist to the core.

Despite her proven record, a woman’s leadership capacity is questioned across the board. She is held against unrealistic standards that are non-existent for men. Women leaders are expected to be motherly, divine and untouched by sin. This stereotype is perhaps the reason why corrupt women politicians are cited every time there is a call for more women leaders.

Corruption has more to do with power, it requires a favourable ecosystem to protect those on the take. No wonder ministers like Sarita Giri and Radha Gyawali are fired without a second thought while men like Vijay Kumar Gachhadar and Mahesh Basnet stay in government despite shady backgrounds.

The presence of women in the legislature known as ‘descriptive representation’ reflects the degree to which the representatives look like the public. Women’s representation in the parliament in proportion to their numbers in the population is essential if they are to equally access and fully participate in power structures and decision-making. Studies show that without gender quotas, some countries will take another 500 years to have fair female representation. High levels of women’s representation in parliament such as in Rwanda (63.8 %) and Sweden (43.6 %) are possible because of quotas.

But does an increased proportion of women in parliament ensure ‘substantive representation’ in support of feminist issues? Yes. A recent study in Argentina found that an increase in the presence of women in the national legislature was associated with more women’s rights bills being introduced. In India, women were more likely than men to raise issues of domestic violence. In Bostwana and Rwanda female MPs passed women-friendly bills despite stiff opposition from men.

Nepal’s new constitution sets women’s representation in the parliament at 33%. Though women law makers constituted only 29.8% in the second CA, it is higher than the 22.3% world average of women parliamentarians. The election of Bidya Bhandari as President and Onsari Gharti Magar as the Speaker of parliament marked a tangible shift in the culture of Nepali politics. The appointment of Sushila Karki as Nepal’s first woman Chief Justice added another gender milestone.

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal repeated this week that the increase female participation in Nepali politics was a direct result of his armed struggle. While there is some merit in his argument, he overlooks the confluence of strategies of both internal and external women’s movements that have helped women advance their status during and after the conflict.

Conflict have levelling effects as societies seek to re-create themselves by framing new constitutions. During the war, gender roles were disrupted pushing women into new activities in the absence of men. The conflict also exposed women to political opportunities both as members of the Maoist movement and as peace mobilisers.

However if women’s organisations had not seized the opportunity during the constitution making process, the deep institutionalized gender bias in society would have persisted. Throughout the tenure of the first and second CA, various organisations and feminist groups lobbied vigorously to secure reservation for women. In addition, emerging international norms and mounting pressure from bilateraldonors and international agencies gave women new impetus to demand a political presence.

Nepal’s brazenly biased citizenship laws despite strong opposition from different quarters prove that Nepali politicians still do not believe women to be as capable and deserving as men. Further proof of male domination is the composition of the coalition cabinet. Of the 13 allotted seats, the Nepali Congress could come up with only one woman minister. The Maoists has included only two women in government, and they are only state ministers.

One might ask why we need more women ministers if we already have so many women parliamentarians. The answer is simple: because female representation in the executive has a symbolic effect. They serve as role models and inspire other women to become more engaged in politics. More importantly, they help to raise awareness of what women can achieve if they can wield political power.

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