Dalit women in Nepali politics: Underrepresented, undermined, discriminated and oppressed

If political parties are really serious about ending the social discrimination, they should not hesitate to provide enough opportunities to Dalit women.

Radha Nepali

  • Read Time 5 min.

A total of 6,620 Dalit women were elected at the ward level in the recently held local-level elections. The number, given the representation of Dalit women, is a huge step forward towards inclusiveness in local politics, thanks to the Local Level Election Act.

Section 6 (2) of the Local Level Election Act, formulated as per the spirit of the Constitution of Nepal, states that two women including a Dalit member must be elected in each ward.

A total of 11 women won the election for the post of deputy mayor and vice chair of municipalities and rural municipalities.

This achievement has brought Dalit women, who were oppressed and discriminated for long, to the leadership position in local units. However, these achievements are just limited in local units as the upcoming parliamentary elections–slated for November 20–have only a few Dalit candidates, let alone Dalit women.

The major political parties have given preference to non-Dalit candidates for the House of Representatives (HoR) and Provincial Assembly elections under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system.

Under the FPTP system, major political parties have just three Dalit candidates–of them one is a woman. The CPN (Maoist Center) has Maheswar Gahataraj as its candidate from Banke-1, and Anjana Bisunkhe from Kathmandu-10. The CPN (UML) has given the election ticket to Chabilal Bishwakarma from Rupandehi-1. Bishunkhe is just one Dalit women candidate for the HoR election from the major political parties.

The Nepali Congress doesn’t even have a single Dalit candidate for HoR and provincial assembly elections under the FPTP system. CPN (Unified Socialist), Loktantrik Samajwadi Party and Janata Samajbadi Party are no exceptions either.

Despite the contributions of Dalit women in different movements, political parties choose male candidates for FPTP system. They place Dalit women in the propotional representation (PR) list just to compensate non-representation in FPTP list.

Make no mistake: Dalit women contributed to making women’s movement successful.   The Dalit movement itself would not have been succsessful without the participation Dalit women. 

Still, there is a mindset among the political parties that picking up Dalit over the so-called upper caste for elections will not attract voters. At least political parties should get over this kind of mentality.

The representation of Dalit in the lower house–the HoR–through the FPTP system is declining. After the 2006 People’s Movement, the representation of the Dalit community in Nepal’s mainstream politics had somehow increased. But this achievement did not last long.

In the first Constituent Assembly elections in 2008, seven Dalit candidates from the erstwhile CPN (Maoist) won the election under the FPTP system. Of them, two were women. Sitadevi Baudel won the election from Nawalparasi-2, and Durga BK from Kaski-4. Both of them created history as they were the first Dalit women to win election under the FPTP system.

In the second Constituent Assembly elections in 2013, only two Dalit candidates won elections under the FPTP system. Both of them were male candidates.

Likewise in the HoR election in 2017, three Dalit male candidates won the election.

The situation is similar in the provincial assembly elections as well. The seven provincial assemblies have a total of 330 seats under the FPTP system. But major political parties have given election tickect to only 10 Dalit candidates, of which only one is woman.

For the provincial assembly under FPTP, CPN (UML) has four Dalit candidates namely Afilal Akhada, Sita Sundas, Ram Dayal Mandal and Bhakta Bahadur BK. Likewise, CPN (Maoist Center) also has four candidates–Mahendra Paswan, Binod Pahadi, Karna Singh Pariyar and Karna Bahadur BK. Similarly, CPN (Unified Socialist) has two candidates namely Bhagwat Biswashi Nepali and Dal Bahadur Sunar.

Why the situation should change

Meager representation of Dalit community in parliament will have adverse impacts on wellbeing of the community as a whole. For example, issues such as caste-based discrimination and untouchability will not be effectively discussed in the national mainstream. How can Dalit lawmakers play an effective role in the process of formulating laws and policies for Dalits and ensuring their implementation without their adequate representation in lawmaking institutions?

In Nepal, Dalit women are among the most oppressed groups. They are the victims of caste-based discrimination, untouchability and gender-based violence. However, these issues have not become topics of discussion at the policy-making level. If political parties are serious about ending social discrimination, they should not hesitate to provide enough opportunities to Dalit women, especially in the mainstream politics.

Latest studies have shown that Dalit women are more vulnerable to discrimination and oppression than Dalit men. And Dalit women are more vulnerable to these issues than non-Dalit women. In such a situation, ensuring their representation is a first step towards addressing caste and gender-based issues.

According to a study of Feminist Dalit Organization (FEDO), of the total 67 cases of caste-based discrimantion and untouchability against the Dalit community last year, 41 incidents were against Dalit women. This means, 63 percent of incidents were against Dalit women.

Last year, six Dalits were killed in caste-based violence–four of them were women.

Likewise, the data shows that 71 percent of Dalit women have been victims in inter-caste marriages. To end such discriminations, the state should equally ensure the representation of Dalit women in politics.

Nepal has formulated several laws, in accordance with the constitution, to abolish all forms of caste-based discriminations. However, these laws have not directly addressed the issues of the Dalit community. To make the matter worse, cases of caste-based discrimination, untouchability and violence against women are often taken lightly, which makes the Dalit issues even weaker.

As political parties are unveiling their election manifestos, like in the past, they are promising economic prosperity, development, and good governance. Like always, they will also promise to abolish all forms of discriminations againt the Dalit community. These promises have to be kept by the political parties. The Dalit community needs to pressure the politicial parties to fulfill these commitments. Let’s question the political parties. Let’s question if they would protect those involved in caste-based discrimination. This is the right time to question as the election is approaching.

As per the latest census, Dalits account for 13.8 percent of the total population. Of them, 8.12 percent are in hilly districts, while 4.41 percent are in Madhesh districts. Of the total Dalit population, 1.4 million are male, while 1.6 million are female.

And of the total female population, 15 percent are Dalits. But their representation is too low compared to their population size. Make no mistake. Dalit women have contributed to making women’s movement successful, and the Dalit movement itself would not have been succsessful without the participation Dalit women. Which is why it is essential to ensure their rights and equal representation.

With low representation of Dalit women, the implementation of the constitution will be not be effective. And as long as Dalit women do not come to mainstream politics, the issue of discrimination and oppression against them will not be a subject of political debate. Representation of a few Dalit men alone will not end oppression and discrimination against Dalit women. And the representation of fewer Dalit women, if at all, cannot address the issues of Dalit women. The Sooner the political parties realize this more inclusive they will probably become. 

This is a translated version of a story first published in Gorkhapatra Daily. This story has been prepared under the fellowship program of ICDR International.