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Women’s Political Struggle in Nepal: a Shared History of South Asia

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epal is a small, landlocked Himalayan State, placed between India and China. Its population of over 18 million is predominantly rural. Since its unification 200 years ago, Nepal has been a monarchy. In the 18th century, the warrior king Prithvi Narayan Shah unified many princely states, bringing the country to its present shape and size. The unification marked the beginning of the rule by the Shah dynasty.

In the past two-and-a-half centuries, the country has been ruled by 13 kings. For a century of isolation between 1850-1950, a feudal family—the Ranas—who called themselves kings, ruled Nepal. During their regime, the people were deprived of fundamental rights. In 1847 the Ranas took over power from the king and remained the de-facto rulers for 104 years. The Ranas word was law. The people revolted against the Rana oligarchy, and in 1951 the Rana regime gave way to democracy. King Tribhuwan supported the revolt. However, the ushering in of democracy wasn't completely free of political turmoil.

After years of political instability that followed, general elections were held in 1959 and for the first time the people had an elected government. B. P. Koirala became the first elected prime minister of Nepal. In less than two years, King Mahendra, successor of King Tribhuwan dissolved both the government and the parliament, brought democracy to an end and introduced the party-less Panchayat rule. The Panchayat system, in which political parties were banned, continued for 30 years. During this period a number of armed and unarmed struggles against the system took place, which was crushed by the government. Students launched a major political movement in 1980 against the Panchayat system, during King Birendra's regime. To resolve the tension, the King announced a referendum. People were to choose between multi-party democracy and an improved version of the Panchayat system. In a controversial result, the multi party democracy was defeated. However it weakened the Panchayat system, paving way for the restoration of democracy after a decade.

In 1950, a movement, jointly involving the people of Nepal and the King, overthrew the autocratic rule of the Ranas, and a parliamentary form of government was established. In 1960, the King banned the parliamentary system of government, and established a party-less, autocratic panchayat system.

For more than 30 years, Nepal had no party system. In the 1940s, the people of Nepal were greatly influenced by India’s freedom struggle against British colonial rule. They rose against the Rana regime, which had suppressed the growing people’s movement for democracy. Women started coming together, and from 1947 until 1952, several women’s organisations were born to raise the political and social consciousness among women in Nepal.

In 1960, the King of Nepal subverted the democratic panchayat system to an autocratic one. This put a sudden end to all associations and their activities. Women, however, remained politically active. In protest against the undemocratic royal proclamation of 1960, a group of women openly waved black flags in a public procession, and were imprisoned. Later, in the people’s movement of 1989, women actively participated to get rid of the autocratic panchayat system and to usher in a multiparty, democratic system. Women of various regions and ideologies contributed greatly to the success of this movement.

In 1989, there was a mass movement for the restoration of democracy. The constitution of Nepal, framed in 1990, after the restoration of democracy, mandates a parliamentary form of government, constitutional monarchy and the strengthening of multiparty democracy, and an independent judiciary.

The historical Movement of the people in 1990 overthrew the Panchayat system and restored multi-party democracy. Within a year, a democratic constitution was introduced, which, for the first time, made the people sovereign. Less than six years after the restoration of multi-party system, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist started an armed insurgency in 1996 claiming that the people had not yet received justice.

South Asia presents a unique paradox. Almost every country in the region, with the exception of Nepal, has had a woman leader at its helm at some point in time, a phenomenon unparalleled in other regions of the world. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have had the unique distinction of two women leaders in the course of their political history. This is in stark contrast to the dwindling numbers of women who are elected to national parliaments and legislatures during each election. The high visibility of women leaders is fully matched by the invisibility of women representatives in the national assemblies. In the case of Nepal, women’s access to positions of power in executive bodies and the courts has been limited. In the 25-member panchayat cabinet that was dissolved on 8 April 1990, there was only one female minister, who held the health portfolio. Very few women attained positions of office in panchayat institutions. Of the 140 members in the outgoing national panchayat, eight (5.7 per cent) were women.

In the May 1991 election to the House of Representatives, the final list of the 1,345 candidates included only 81 women (6.6 per cent). In the case of the two leading parties, the Nepali Congress Party had 11 women among its 204 candidates, while the United Marxist-Leninist (UML) party included only nine women among its 177 candidates. At the district and village level, the percentage of women candidates was a dismal 0.3 per cent and 0.9 per cent respectively.

The results declared showed that of the 205 candidates elected, seven were women—five from the Nepali Congress Party and two from the UMI .Since the constitution requires that women make up five per cent of the upper house, three women were also nominated to fill the quota. At the national level, 10 per cent of the women candidates were elected. At the district level, although women constituted a negligible percentage of candidates, there was a 100 per cent victory for women, with all seven women winning. At the village level, 25 per cent of those women who stood for elections won.

The new constitution of Nepal promulgated in 1990, provided women with equal political rights. It states that women can vote, compete in local and national elections, involve in political parties, and support and adopt any political ideology. In 1990, constitutional provisions were introduced that made it mandatory to nominate at least five per cent of women candidates for the House of Representatives, and to provide for seven seats for women in the National Assembly. The only provision added to appease women is the article on election rules . The constitution now requires that women amount to at least five per cent of the candidates fielded by each political party in the elections for the House of Representatives.

In the decade long armed conflict more than 13 thousand Nepalese lost their lives. Thousands were displaced and hundreds disappeared. Terror, instability and infrastructure damage took its toll on the nation. In the meantime, the entire family of King Birendra was wiped out in the infamous Royal palace massacre. The subsequent rise of King Gyanendra, pushed the country to further turmoil. The government failed to hold elections in time. On charges of incompetence Sher Bahadur Deuba's elected government was overthrown and the King formed his own government.

The Maoists movement had in the meantime gathered momentum, hindering the holding of elections. The new government under Lokendra Bahadur Chand also failed to conduct elections. Surya Bahadur Thapa was appointed as the new Prime Minister. He held peace talks with the Maoists to prepare an environment for elections, but that too resulted in a failure. Deuba was reappointed the Prime Minister, but only remained in office for a short time, as dialogue with the Maoists did not materialize. The escalation of violence and killings only added to the people's desperation and increased security problem.

On February 1st 2005, the King took over absolute state powers and assumed the role of the Chairman of the cabinet, a cabinet that he had himself nominated. This led the political parties to form an alliance with the Maoist rebels. In November 2005, a 12-point agreement was signed by the seven political parties and the Maoists. The first objective of the agreement was to end the violent conflict and restore peace in the country. This agreement provided the Maoists an opportunity to suspend the armed movement and participate in a peaceful democratic movement.

The peaceful movement turned into a people's movement. Millions of people marched onto the streets demanding an end to the tyrannical monarchy and the writing of a new Constitution through a Constituent Assembly. The people finally forced the king to relinquish state control on April 24, 2006. The success of the People's Movement II left king Gyanendra powerless. The political parties are now committed to writing a Democratic Constitution through a Constituent Assembly elected by the people. The Maoists have become a part of the Parliament. The responsibilities vested in the King have now been transferred to the Prime Minister.

An election for the Nepalese Constituent Assembly was held in Nepal on 10 April 2008 after having been postponed from earlier dates of 20 June 2007 and 22 November 2007. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN (M)) placed first in the election with 220 out of 575 elected seats, and it became the largest party in the Constituent Assembly. It was followed by the Nepali Congress with 110 seats and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) with 103 seats. As of 17 April, 26 women have secured seats in the new assembly, 22 from the CPN (M), one from the Nepali Congress, two from the Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum, Nepal and one from Tarai-Madhesh Loktantrik Party from direct election on the basis of first track past post.

South Asian nations share certain predominant features: centralised governments; socio-economic inequalities based on class, gender and caste; and nationalistic divisive claims on grounds of ethnicity, language and religion. India and Sri Lanka have remained democracies for the past 50 years, while Bangladesh and Pakistan have been swinging between democracy, militarism and autocracy. Nepal has passed from democracy to absolute monarchy and back to democracy, absolute monarchy, and federal democratic republic.

Dr. Kedar Karki
Senior Vet.Officer,Central Veterinary Laboratory Kathmandu Nepal M.V.St. Preventive Veterinary Mrdicine


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