Inside an airy room overlooking the Himalayas, Pampha Basel squints at a map scrawled out for her on a sheet of paper. Villagers stream into the room and drag their chairs around her, their new deputy mayor, and comment on the drawing. It shows the hike they take each day to collect safe drinking water.
They are Dalits, or “untouchables,” the lowest Hindu caste. For more than a decade, their water source was separate from that of higher-caste villages. They now use the same tap, but the women must trek to reach it, lugging jerry cans down a steep and slippery path cut through the mountain. The water is often speckled with dirt. The villagers hope Ms. Basel – a Dalit woman herself and one of more than 5,000 Dalit women recently elected to Nepal’s local government bodies under a new quota system – will use her clout to help them.
Nepal, a tiny Himalayan country tucked between India and China, now has one of the world’s largest gender quota systems, intended to swiftly increase the number of women in politics. Since the civil war between Maoist rebels and state forces ended in 2006, the government has adopted quotas that reserve seats for women and, in particular, women from disadvantaged caste and ethnic groups – like Basel. In 2007, quotas were enacted at the national level; this year, in the country’s first local elections in 20 years, they are being enacted for cities and districts.
The local elections – held in three phases, ending Sept. 18 – are catapulting women into politics. These women, who range from activists and small business owners to laborers, homemakers, and teachers, want to reshape the social norms that have left their communities excluded for centuries.
Quotas are a controversial solution, with critics saying they propel women past more qualified male candidates. Yet, for the most part, the quotas here have been welcomed, and the elections have spurred hope of change. But the real challenge, women’s advocates say, comes after the ballots are turned in. Gender quotas guarantee women are elected, but experts say additional efforts can help them participate meaningfully once in office.
Ila Sharma, an election commissioner, says the government plans to train newly elected women for their positions. And after Nepal’s turbulent path to democracy, she believes the quotas are essential.
“Everybody – women, Dalits, minority groups, Muslims – they all have to be here,” she says, sitting in her office near a framed photo of President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, Nepal’s first female head of state. “Then only can we practice democracy.”
A leap in representation
Today, Nepal leads South Asia with the most women in parliament, and since May has elected 11,630 women to local government bodies, according to its Election Commission. But even with the quotas, women’s political representation still trails behind other equality indicators, like their access to education and paid work opportunities.
Discrimination also persists against Dalits, although the practice of treating them as “untouchable” has been formally banned. Dalits, who comprise about 13 percent of the population, are often denied entry into temples and the homes of higher castes. For Dalit women, the discrimination is even more acute. Most are illiterate and only finish primary school. They also face staggering levels of violence, from human trafficking to witchcraft accusations, particularly in rural and remote areas.
At a recent victory rally for Parbati Bisunke, a Dalit woman elected to her ward committee in western Nepal, her own supporters from higher castes refused to dab the customary good-luck powder on her forehead, the Nepali Times reported. That would have required they touch her.
This year’s local elections are the first since 1997; they were halted during Nepal’s conflict and ensuing political instability. They’re a step toward implementing its 2015 Constitution, which restructures the country as a secular, federal republic and requires that local, provincial, and federal elections be held by January 2018.
When the last local elections were held, just 20 percent of the winners were women. In the first two rounds of elections this spring, that number has leapt to 41 percent. The quotas require political parties nominate at least one woman for chief or deputy chief at the district, municipal, and village levels. On local councils, called ward committees, two out of four seats are reserved for a woman and a Dalit woman. Election officials expect 2,678 more women to be elected during the final phase of the polls Sept. 18.
Nepal’s political parties have nominated few women for mayors – a pattern many ascribe to sexism – and more frequently field female candidates for deputy mayors, who sit parallel to local judges and oversee mediations. On local councils, women have sway over development issues, like managing sanitation and health facilities.
The women’s responsibilities, like deciding how to dispense money for development projects, could yield major changes for Dalits, says Kala Swarnakar, the president of Nepal’s Feminist Dalit Organization.
“Dalit communities are left out because other castes never tell them these opportunities exist,” she says. “So if a Dalit woman is on the council, she can circulate information to her community.”
Now in power, Ms. Bisunke, Basel, and other female politicians say they want to use their platforms to fight untouchability and gender discrimination.
Laxmi Gautam, elected as deputy mayor of Itahari, has already set up a help desk for gender-based violence victims in her office. Since July, 45 girls and women have stopped by for information about where they can access services, she says. Namsara Nepali, elected to her ward committee in Gauriganga, says she wants to start income-generation projects for Dalit women and encourage them to pursue politics.
'I haven't spoken yet'
Each week in Lalitpur, Tulsi Pariyar, a Dalit woman who spends her days hawking vegetables on a dusty roadside, slides into a seat at her ward committee meetings. She listens to her fellow members debate the budget and scans the thick documents they pass her to read, frazzled over some words she doesn’t recognize. Sometimes they suggest ideas she disagrees with, but she says they also don’t ask her about her own, like using the budget surplus to start a sewing course for poor women in her neighborhood.
“I haven’t spoken yet,” she says on a recent afternoon, perched on a bed in the room she shares with her husband and two sons in Kathmandu. “But I’m still learning.”
Pampha Basel, a seasoned political activist with years of experience in the Maoist rebel movement, spotted a similar issue. At a crowded meeting, she stood up and introduced herself to a sea of other recently elected women. But many of the women flinched when asked to speak, mumbling out their own names and positions. Trainings will make them more assertive, she says.
Her concerns echo those of Nepal’s leading women’s groups. Many are scrambling to fund leadership trainings focused on enhancing women’s public speaking skills and policy knowledge.
This concern is pressing among Nepal’s Dalit women’s groups that say lower caste women face even more obstacles. Anjana Bishankhe, a former parliamentarian, says she and other Dalit women elected under quotas faced pushback from colleagues who said they didn’t deserve their positions. Only six out of 21 Dalit women elected to Nepal’s parliament said they spoke during sessions, according to interviews conducted by the Center for Dalit Women last year.
“If parliamentarians can’t even speak on their own issues, can we imagine some community groups elected to local bodies will take part in discussions?” says Tajendra Lama, the executive director of the Center for Dalit Women in Kathmandu, referring to female and Dalit candidates.
Drude Dahlerup, a professor at Stockholm University who studies gender quotas, believes capacity-building trainings are beneficial, but she usually starts her research with a different question.
“When we ask, ‘Are women qualified?’ we should also ask, ‘Are men qualified?’” she says, highlighting a perceived double standard.
In Nepal, political parties often question whether female politicians and women elected under quotas are competent enough to lead, adds Pranika Koyu, a feminist activist and poet. “What are we actually saying when we say women have to be ‘competent’?” she asks. “Is it experience? Is it education? Is it money? Is it family connections?”
Dr. Dahlerup says that helping women build skills shouldn’t eclipse the need to address the discrimination they face in male-dominated institutions. It’s critical that political parties – “the gatekeepers” – learn ways they can be inclusive toward women and minority groups, she says. These measures involve looking at the way government bodies operate, like how they can be friendlier toward women’s work and family schedules.
But it would also involve sensitivity trainings for political parties, an effort Dahlerup has yet to see any country embrace. She recounts the story of a Dalit woman elected to her village council in India who lingered outside the door of meetings for a year before joining. No one invited her into the room.
“If we only educate women,” Dahlerup says, “we’re failing to change the structure and institutions.”