For several weeks now, Nepal has seen violent clashes between protestors and government forces over a proposed new constitution that would divide the country into federal states.
Some ethnic minority groups argue that they will have less autonomy and experience discrimination in the proposed federal system. Nevertheless this new constitution promises freedom from discrimination for the excluded people, including women. Women are among most vulnerable groups in Nepal, with little economic and political opportunities. Traditional beliefs and practices, trafficking, and other social stigmas hamper their personal growth, undermining their contribution to state- and peace-building. This is exacerbated by the caste system as well as ethnic/linguistic diversity in a country where people belong to 125 caste and ethnic groups, and speak 123 languages. To tackle these gender biases and imbalances, Nepal is working on a new constitution which aims to give more political opportunities for women, and recognize the important role of women in the transition from fragile state to developing economy. A first step toward achieving this goal is transforming the country’s male-dominated political institutions. For instance, the current practice in elections is to let women run only in constituencies where they are likely to lose. The draft constitution proposes that out of 51 seats in the upper house of parliament, each province must reserve at least 3 of 8 seats for women, and the total must include one member of the dalit (untouchable) caste, one disabled, and one representative of an ethnic minority. In addition, at least one of the three lawmakers nominated by the president must be a woman. The road to a more gender-balanced parliament in Nepal was set in motion during the 2013 Constituent Assembly, which established an interim constitution with a minimum one-third representation quota for women in the lower house of parliament. This commitment to women’s participation in politics has also taken root in the provincial legislatures and local legislatures, where the quota system is finally giving women the opportunity to participate in public service. Under the proposed new constitution, local chairpersons will be directly elected by citizens instead of representatives to prevent nepotism, and gender diversity will be extended even to the executive level, so that for instance if the president is male the vice president must be female, and vice versa. Women and other marginalized groups will get their own commissions to protect their rights, among them safe motherhood. With women enjoying equal rights to parental property in Nepal, either parent will be able to apply for a child’s citizenship. Until now only fathers could apply, which barred children of single mothers from acquiring official identity documents. This will benefit not only women but over 800,000 children of women turned widows as a result of the decade-long conflict with the Maoist guerrilla and the devastating earthquake of 25 April. Women’s political participation in the peace process, constructive social activism, and economic empowerment can be attained only with their dynamic engagement in public service. If all of these proposed changes are finally approved, women with competence, credibility, and political commitment will have the opportunity to play a meaningful role in state institutions in male-dominated country. The gender-inclusive constitution gives hope to women in Nepal of taking on a bigger role in Nepal’s transformation from fragility to development, and a promise of real equality that is essential to the country’s future stability.