Over her four years in office, Nita Ghatani, a ward member from Damak Municipality, already feels she has made a difference to her constituent. “I made sure the schools prioritized supplying sanitary pads as many girls miss school because they don’t have them,” she said during a conversation.
Ghatani was one of 14,352 women representatives elected to office in the local government elections in 2017. Gender quotas stipulated in the Local Election Act, 2017 ensured that two out of the four members elected in each local government ward were women and one of these from Dalit communities. Following the elections, 40.9 percent of the total government representatives are now women, and of these 47.4 percent are Dalit women.
A crucial step to implementing the 2015 Constitution, the 2017 local elections reinstated political representatives at the local levels for the first time in nearly 20 years. But, for the majority of these women representatives, this was their first time in office and they entered the position with little or no previous experience in politics.
Over the last four years, several non-governmental organizations have been working with the women representatives to build their knowledge and skills, aiming to better equip them to participate meaningfully in the local government political processes. This has ranged from training on effective communication and leadership skills, to information on local level planning processes and relevant legislative acts.
Now, with local elections slated for May 13 this year, activists are calling on political parties to give the existing representatives another election ticket.
“For the first two years, most of these women did not properly understand their roles and responsibilities, as they were suddenly thrust into these roles. Slowly, they became more equipped as political leaders. Compared to the first year of their term, they have changed a lot, not only in terms of skills or their exposure but also in terms of becoming active within their political parties and community committees,” said Gaura Nepali, founding chairperson of the Center for Dalit Women Nepal (CDWN), one of the organizations that has been providing training to elected local government women representatives.
“Rather than bringing in a new set of representatives, the existing representatives should be able to put into practice what they have learned during their first term.”
A recent mid-term evaluation of CDWN’s ‘She Leads’ program, which, over the last two years, has provided leadership and other training for 483 women representatives, confirms this preference among the current elected women representatives: 82% of those surveyed wanted to continue their representation into the next local government term.
Ghatani is one of the elected women who want to run again. She recounts how the initial phase of the first term was very difficult, with it taking over a year for her to properly understand her role. “Now I am a lot more confident in my position,” she says. “I can now give solutions to the people of my municipality if there have problems.”
But according to Nepali, this is contrary to the narrative of most political parties, who maintain women are only getting a return ticket if they can prove they are capable. “But the general philosophy of the parties is that women are not capable as politicians, so why to give them a return ticket,” she says.
“I think there is a view among political leaders that if they give further opportunities to the same women, those women are now more able and equipped to participate meaningfully in the political processes. And if women representatives start raising their voices, it will threaten the male politicians’ positions as leaders, not only in local government but also within the political parties.”
Another key issue raised by experts ahead of the local government elections is the level of representation of women in the key decision-making positions in local government. In an effort to improve equality, the Election Act also prescribed how political parties must field at least one female candidate for the post of either mayor or deputy mayor, (or for chair or deputy chair in rural municipalities).
But in reality, in the 2017 local government elections, political parties mainly nominated females for the positions of deputy mayor, and male candidates for the positions of mayor. Only 2% of the 753 mayor/chairperson positions went to women; 93% of deputy positions went to women. According to a report by the Asia Foundation, out of the 753 constituencies, only 190 had women been nominated for the positions of mayor or chairperson.
Replacing Nepal’s unitary, centralized state system, with a federal governance system, the 2015 Constitution of Nepal pledged to end all forms of discrimination, including that based on gender and caste. Pointing to this, activists are demanding gender quotas to be implemented directly for the position of mayors and chairpersons.
According to Nepali, “No matter how much we try and sensitize male politicians to gender representation issues, they only act based on the provisions in the law. Unless it is provisioned by law, there are very minimal chances that women will ever be equally represented in leadership positions.”
Laxmi Pariyar, a member of the House of Representatives, agrees. “Women have been at the forefront of the empowerment movement for a long time. In local government, in both the mayor and deputy mayor positions, half should be female. Quotas are so crucial because women have been denied opportunities for so long.”
Indeed, research has shown that having women in positions of political power can result in better developmental outcomes, and policies that tackle a wider range of development goals. A recent study from India shows that a higher share of women in legislative assemblies actually resulted in an increase in economic growth of 1.8 ppts per year. Another recent study estimates the implementation of gender quotas results in a 9 to 12% reduction in maternal mortality.
Ghatani explains how during discussions over development fund spending, she questioned the concept of development. “Most ward members wanted to build a road, but this is not the only type of development we should be aiming for,” she tells me. “Many poor people in my ward do not have waterproof roofing, so rather than a new road metal roofing was provided for 71 low-income homes.”
Other female local government representatives interviewed for this article also described a diverse range of programs, aimed at addressing a wide range of development issues, that they had implemented in their first term in office. Laxmi Kumari Bishwakarma, the ward member from Birendranagar municipality, explained how she focused on creating livelihood opportunities for Dalit women: 80 households were provided with chicken, goats or sewing machines.
Bishwakarma also wants to run in upcoming local elections, although this time as deputy mayor. “Rather than focusing on infrastructure development, I would promote social programs such as removing discriminatory practices, income generation and empowering marginalized groups,” she explains.
Back in Jhapa, confident that her new skills would be put to good use in a decision-making position, Ghatani also wants to run as a ward chair or deputy chair in the upcoming local government elections. One of her main aims is to improve the level of community schooling in her ward. “We always focus on the physical development of the school,” she tells me. “But rarely do we talk about the quality of the teaching within it, and this is something I want to change.”
Eileen McDougall is an independent writer and researcher from the UK currently living in Nepal.