Women's participation in two of the most important economic factors, remittances and agriculture, is minimal. This would be drastically different if more women were in positions of legislative power.
--BY BINITA NEPALI
Nepal ranks first in South Asia and second in Asia in terms of the share of women representatives in the parliament. However, it ranks 123rd in the world in terms of the number of women holding ministerial posts. Women in Nepal have been assigned ministerial roles at general ministries only. It demonstrates the reality that, despite increased female political participation, women are not trusted to exercise authority and manage resources at the key ministries that have the potential to make major policy implications in the country.
In 2008, a mixed-model election system [First Past the Post (FPTP) and Proportional Representation (PR)] was introduced to encourage positive discrimination of women and other marginalised and unrepresented groups in the country. However, the political parties have exploited the PR system and turned it into the sole route for women to enter politics.
Political parties are reluctant to field women under the FPTP system. Therefore, to ensure constitutional adherence, women are brought onto the PR list. Only 9% the FPTP candidates in the 2022 federal and provincial elections were female. Most of the female candidates were fielded in fiercely competitive constituencies, with the less competitive seats going to the supposedly "strong" male leaders.
As per Article 84 of the Constitution of Nepal, at least one-third of the members elected from each political party to the federal parliament must be women. Therefore, at least 92 of the 275 members of the new federal parliament must be women, as there are currently only 19 women (32.2 percent), in the 59-member upper house. As only nine women were elected directly, the remaining 85 seats have been filled through proportional representation. It means there are just nine women in the top decision-making positions, as it has been found that the directly elected representatives - more than 95% of whom are men - hold greater sway over resources, authority, and influence than those who come via the PR system in Nepal’s parliament.
The country also fell short of meeting the target of having 50% women representatives in the local units. Only 14,407 (41.21%) out of the 34,953 elected in 753 local units were women. Of them, only 25 women have been elected to top or decision-making posts (13 mayors and 12 chairpersons). Moreover, women were sidelined in the guise of political coalitions during the recent local, provincial, and federal elections. Consequently, fewer women today hold leadership roles at all three tiers of government, owing to political parties' aversion to promoting women to decision-making positions. To put it another way, Nepal missed out on the opportunities that more women in decision-making positions would bring.
First, more women in politics means a more inclusive democracy. A study shows more women in decision-making roles, with their inclusive and cooperative leadership styles, result in tangible gains for democracy. This entails better service delivery, stronger collaboration across racial and political boundaries, expanded social safety nets, and a more sustainable future.
Moreover, other research links women's political participation to improved governance, transparency, and low levels of corruption. As women are often seen to be more trustworthy and honest, it is hoped that their increased participation in politics will reduce corruption. In 2011, Mexico replaced all of its male traffic cops with female cops to curb corruption, since women are seen as more trustworthy. New Zealand has the highest level of female representation (49.2%) of any parliament in the Asia and Pacific Region and the sixth highest in the world. Now wonder, the country ranks first out of 180 in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI). Whereas, Nepal ranks first in South Asia in having more women in national parliament (32.7 percent) and is 117th out of 180 in the CPI. Undoubtedly, Nepal needs more proactive women leaders who would guarantee more inclusive policies and responsible institutions that combat the pervasive corruption.
Second, more women legislators mean a more stable, inclusive, and vibrant economy. Researches show that gender equity has favourable economic gains for everyone and that the presence of women in politics corresponds with a wider economic impact.
India showed much improved socio-economic growth with greater gender-sensitive spending on programmes related to health, nutrition, and education when women were present in a decision making role. Likewise, women's political leadership and women's broader engagement in the economy are intertwined. Thus, if Nepal wants more women at work, it should prioritise raising the number of women in elected offices.
The government, which remains dominated by men as of now, repeatedly attempts to prohibit women from being involved in the economy. One recent example is the government's effort to implement a law requiring women under the age of 40 to get permission from their family and local ward chair before travelling to the Middle East and Africa. In Nepal, 74% of women are involved in agriculture. Only 15.7% of agricultural work is performed by men, while the rest 84.3% is performed by women. However, they have no say in the earnings from farming and endure various types of discrimination (such as access to land, water, seeds, and training, among others). Yet, the government does not consider it essential to implement women-friendly farming policies, training, or materials.
Thus, women's participation in two of the most important economic factors, remittances and agriculture, is minimal. This would be drastically different if more women were in positions of legislative power. More women in decision-making positions would fight against such discriminatory restrictions that limit women's full participation in the economy and create a vicious loop: women don't have money, they can't win, therefore they are chosen through PR.
Third, there is significant evidence that women politicians are changing the way politics work by introducing policies in areas that aren't usually talked about at the political table, like domestic violence, women's reproductive health, and maternity leave, and by broadening perspectives on other policy areas. This has been seen in France, Sweden, South Africa, Rwanda, and Egypt, among others. Increased policymaking that prioritises welfare, healthcare, education, families, water and sanitation, women, and minorities is also linked to the number of elected women. Here, the New Zealand experience serves as the best example.
Women politicians not only propose such policies but also tirelessly work to put them into effect, as Margaret Thatcher rightly stated: "In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman." A study done in the US has found that congresswomen provide 9% more government programmes annually to their home districts than their male counterparts. And women are 10% more effective lawmakers and pass twice as many bills on average than men. The increasing instances of gender-based violence, rape, early child marriage, acid attacks, and girls’ trafficking are tearing the country apart. With Nepal's political class becoming more and more apathetic, it is certain that greater representation of women in decision-making positions will increase efforts to put an end to these issues.
Nepal cannot afford to ignore women. It must ponder seriously what might be done to avoid losing out on these costly opportunities. As was done in Rwanda (which implemented 30% gender quotas in the parliament only in 2003 but ranks first in the world in terms of the proportion of women, 61.25%, in its national legislature due to rigorous implementation), one of the most important recommendations is to implement the legally mandated gender quota with adequate political finance regulations to support it, as the exorbitant cost of political elections is a significant barrier for women who are interested in running for elective office.
The patriarchal attitudes of Nepali society and local political parties that "women cannot win," which limit women's electability and winnability in the elections must be challenged by raising awareness of the importance that women could offer to overall political governance and public service delivery. As women cannot be what they cannot see, elected women should get more media publicity to inspire other women to pursue leadership positions. Lastly, there should be more training and networks for women who want to run for government. For example, a cross-party and cross-country network for women politicians could be set up.
(Nepali is a Research and Programme Officer at Nepal Institute for Policy Research).