Closing the Gaps: Nepal’s Marginalized Communities

Nepal’s constitution-making process has received limited participation from women and ethnic minorities.

With a voter turnout of 70%, a new sense of optimism has emerged following Nepal’s November 19 elections — an exercise in reconciliation and democracy that held the potential for impressive gains but also significant challenges.

The polls provided an opportunity for the parties and the public to focus on pressing social, economic, and governance issues. In a country that has over 100 ethnicities, a lingering caste system and entrenched traditions of discrimination, the key challenge that Nepal faces is the inclusion of women, ethnic minorities, and other marginalized groups in both politics and social and economic life. But at this juncture, with uncertainty now even surrounding the election itself, Nepal’s political future is unclear.

The 601-seat Constituent Assembly, elected in 2008, was dissolved by the Supreme Court in May 2012. The collapse of the assembly, which also served as the country’s parliament, left the country without a legislature. Nepal is currently running on an interim constitution promulgated in 2006 as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Since then, no elected government has ever completed a full-term.

Despite successes in health and education indicators, local government has been absent for almost a decade, investment is low, impunity is high, and basic services such as electricity and water are intermittent for much of the year. The lack of a constitution has undoubtedly impacted Nepal's stability and has provoked distrust among the people.

In the new Constituent Assembly, there will be no single absolute majority — the Nepali Congress emerged as the largest party with 196 seats; the CPN-UML secured 175 seats; and the UCPN Maoists were left 80 seats, a reversal of their 2008 landslide victory which has prompted the party to allege vote-rigging.

Unresolved Factors

Two of the unresolved and contentious constitutional issues have been citizenship and federalism. Major stakeholders in these issues are women and ethnic minorities, respectively. The undemocratic and highly individualistic nature of Nepal’s stagnant political parties — some men have served at least twice, if not more, as prime minister — risks limiting active and meaningful participation of these marginalized groups in the constitution-making process, thereby delegitimizing the process as well as imperiling Nepal’s future stability.

Through a system of reserved seats, the dissolved assembly had allowed an unprecedented number of women and ethnic community representatives. However, there were indications that the next assembly would have fewer reserved seats than the previous one.

Women

The 2008 Constituent Assembly elections saw Nepal achieve its highest level of women’s representation at the national level. Some 197 seats, or 33%, of the 601-seat assembly belonged to women. These impressive figures were a direct result of the quota system, won with tireless advocacy efforts.

However, women’s position within the parties themselves remains peripheral and what emerges is a manipulation of their participation in political life by entrenched party power magnates. Civil society’s expectations that increased women’s representation would result in gender-responsive policies have been premature; quality, not quantity, is crucial. Although there are more women at the National Women’s Commission, there is still furious debate over whether women can pass down citizenship to their children. The recent Gender Gap Report 2013, released by the World Economic Forum, ranked Nepal 121st out of 136 countries.

What the last six years have taught us is that strengthening gender-equality requires much more than increased representation. Political parties and institutions need to improve their understanding of gender and women’s equality and empowerment.

As a party to the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and other international instruments that require gender equality before the law, Nepal needs to prioritize ending discrimination against women that is still pervasive throughout the country, including domestic violence and cultural practices such as deuki and chappaudi. Systemic problems that underlie policy reforms need to be addressed, mindsets need to be changed, and male representatives are needed to espouse the cause as well. This is the legal foundation for women’s rights in Nepal, and women’s active participation in the assembly is essential.

Federalism and Ethnicity

A key reason for the last Constituent Assembly's failure was the inability of political parties to reach an agreement on federalism; and it will remain a sensitive issue following the recent vote.

This debate is closely linked to the issue of identity and ethnicity. Systemic inequities can be both deeply entrenched and almost invisibly subtle. Domination along elite- and caste-based lines of the political, public, and economic spheres has resulted in disparities in opportunity, representation, and dignity between those who have traditionally wielded power (Kathmandu Brahmin-Chhetris) and minority and indigenous ethnic groups (often self-identified as janajati).

These disparities exist and must be addressed. The current coalition of indigenous ethnic communities that are organized outside of major parties is a powerful political force. Key ethnic communities feel that their lowered representation will eventually undercut the agenda of federalism in Nepal – an issue that has remained at the core of their discontent with the Nepali state.

Closing the Gaps

As the country rallies itself for another attempt at a meaningful transition, Nepal should seize the opportunity to promote women’s rights. Similarly, it must sharpen public debate on the need to view human capital from a fresh perspective.

If Nepal is to increase growth and encourage stability, it needs to begin dialogue regarding the inclusion of marginalized groups and their integration into leadership roles. Women, persons with disabilities, and all ethnic communities should be able to actively and equally participate in the drafting of a new constitution. Yes, key provisions will directly affect their lives, but they must also be full participants in the process and neither isolate others, nor let themselves be isolated in the political process. They ought to introduce their own perspectives into all areas of political life.

Those in power in Nepal — in all sectors — should reflect on why past constitutions have failed, and prioritize the importance of closing the gender and ethnic gaps, both politically and economically. Closing these gaps will render large dividends for Nepal's future as well as pave the way for development.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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