Marginalised women in Nepal are taking their place in local government

Mike Clulow | Jun 19, 2017
Group of Dalit women holding flag during local election campaign in Nepal

For the first time in 20 years, the people of Nepal are voting in local elections. The process has been divided into two phases covering different parts of the country. The first phase took place on May 14th and the second will be held later this month on June 28th. This is a major step in strengthening democracy across Nepal, but it is particularly important for Dalit women, who are among the most marginalised  and who will now soon enter local government in large numbers for the first time ever.

According to Womankind partner the Feminist Dalit Organisation (FEDO), “The local level elections constitute a significant achievement for our country as a whole and the representation of Dalit women through them is a remarkable achievement for us. After a long struggle and campaign by FEDO to politically empower Dalit women and increase their representation in state structures, so as to integrate them into national development processes, the local level elections have finally provided an opportunity”.

Challenging discrimination

Dalits make up close to 15% of the population. Caste-based discrimination is illegal but they are still frequently treated as “untouchable”. They are routinely denied access to religious sites and face resistance to inter-caste marriages, refusal by non-Dalits to handle anything touched by them and many other forms of discrimination. They suffer from high levels of poverty, low life expectancy and low literacy (International Dalit Solidarity Network). Dalit women suffer double discrimination because of their caste and their gender. One result is the very low enrolment of Dalit girls in secondary school. Only 40% of all Nepali girls are educated beyond primary level but among Dalits that percentage drops to just 11.8%. Dalit women also frequently experience violence; the President of the National Women’s Commission, Shekh Chand Tara, has spoken about how issues and beliefs reinforced by religion, surrounding hierarchy and caste, perpetuate violence against Dalit women.

In response to this discrimination, a group of concerned Dalit women founded FEDO in 1994 to campaign for the construction of a just and equitable society. FEDO is now a large movement of Dalit women, organised through nearly 60 district chapters across Nepal with 2,154 local women's groups and more than 50,000 members.

Constitutional recognition

During the process to develop the new constitution, which was approved in 2015, FEDO was heavily involved in advocacy by Dalit organisations to ensure that it would promote and protect Dalit women’s rights. This work, which Womankind supported with funding from the Dutch government FLOW initiative, contributed to positive provisions through clauses on women’s rights, the right to social justice, the constitution of the national assembly, the House of Representatives and provincial assemblies, and other matters. FEDO’s lobbying also led to the manifestos of the major political parties specifically mentioning Dalit women’s issues and to changes to the Nepali Congress party constitution to include at least two Dalit women in every structure from local to national level.

"A revolutionary change"

Continuing lobbying led the 2017 Local Level Election Act to stipulate that at least two out of the four members of each Ward Committee must be women and that one should be a female member from the Dalit community. As a result, 7,526 Dalit women are standing as candidates in the elections and at least 6,680 of them will be elected. This is hugely significant; as FEDO say, “This will definitely elevate the status of Dalit women and help break the practice of untouchability and caste-based discrimination and bring about a revolutionary change in our society”.

This law was approved over many objections and arguments that it should be amended. Claims were made that many wards had few Dalit residents or that Dalit women are not competent to be members of the committees. FEDO built alliances with like-minded organisations and political party leaders to overcome these objections and spread awareness of Dalit women’s rights.

Awareness of the law still needs to be spread further. Experience before and during the first phase of the elections showed that many Dalit women didn’t know about the law or were confused about its provisions. FEDO is working through its chapters and local groups to better prepare Dalit women for the second phase to make the most of this tremendous opportunity.

FEDO and their members have shown Nepal and the world what they’ve always known – that Dalit women have the skills, the experience and the passion to enter politics, and they’re ready to stand up and be counted.

Find out how to support our work with FEDO

 
 

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