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No Woman on Top
|by Sudeshna Sarkar|
Sixteen years ago, as a teenager in Kathmandu city who dreamt of making it big as a photographer, Min Bajracharya was covering the public uprising against King Birendra's absolute rule. That was when he came across an image that gave him his first break.
Hundreds of protesters had gathered at Tundhikhel, a prominent public old square in the capital, waving red flags and shouting pro-democracy slogans. Suddenly, a young woman leapt up to her feet. Her forehead and palms were red with vermilion to signify victory, and she raised her hands triumphantly, making a double victory sign.
That image of the leaping woman, Durga K C, 22, a college student, photographed by Min on his outdated Nikon camera, became an icon of the Chhiyallis ko Jan Andolan (2046 - according to the Nepali calendar - People's Movement) - which forced the king to lift the ban on political parties and hand over power. Even now, one comes across Durga's image on posters, in books on the agitation and T-shirts.
In April 2006, history repeated itself when another nationwide protest erupted against Birendra's brother and successor, King Gyanendra, who had tried to regain the absolute power his ancestors had. Min, now a well-known photojournalist using a sophisticated digital camera, began once again covering the anti-king demonstrations. On April 18, he came across a group of government employees taking out a protest rally in defiance of curfew and shoot-at-sight orders. The matronly woman leading the march seemed familiar. He looked closely. It was Durga, now a wife and mother.
The two images are a metaphor for the crucial element that made the two peaceful revolutions successful: mass participation by women - a must for success in a country where over 50 per cent of the 27 million population is women.
"There was overwhelming participation by women in the April protests," says Vidya Bhandari, a three-time Member of Parliament from the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML). "In key towns like Dang, Pokhara and Chitwan, women took out rallies on their own."
Though at the lower levels, women outnumber men with 60 to 70 per cent participation, women find little representation in the top slots. Indeed, there is currently just one woman minister in the 17-member cabinet formed by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala after he came to power in April 2006 on the crest of women's protests. Urmila Aryal of the UML was predictably given the women, children and social welfare ministry.
"They have no say when it comes to making decisions and policies, let alone going on to become prime minister, chief justice, attorney-general, chief secretary or speaker of Parliament," says Bhandari, who joined parliamentary politics after the death of her husband Madan Bhandari in 1993.
And this is the anomaly that Bhandari sought to eliminate when she tabled a resolution in Parliament for a 33 per cent reservation in government bodies for women. This resolution was passed unanimously by Parliament on May 30, 2006. The resolution also asked the government to present Bills to rectify laws that discriminate on the basis of gender.
Born in a remote village in Eastern Nepal, Vidya Bhandari developed a taste for politics when, under the influence of her uncle, she joined the leftist student movement. Later she met and married Madan Bhandari, then general secretary of the UML and one of the most charismatic leaders in Nepal.
In 1993, Madan Bhandari, then a Member of Parliament, was killed in a car crash at the age of 41. Although an inquiry commission attributed his death to accident, rumors persisted that Madan Bhandari was murdered.
In the bye-election that followed Madan Bhandari's death, Vidya was fielded as a candidate by the UML. Cynics put her victory to the sympathy factor, but she proved them wrong. In the following two elections, she defeated formidable rivals, former prime minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Daman Nath Dhungana, a much respected former speaker.
Bhandari is disappointed that despite good performance, her party was yet to give her greater responsibilities. "Both society and our parties treat us as second-class citizens," says Bhandari. "Parties avoid strong women who fight for their rights, they prefer puppets, people who can't rise without a prop and stay suitably obedient."
Perhaps the most telling incident occurred this month when Nepal's parliament, reinstated after four long years, refused to promote Deputy Speaker Chitralekha Yadav to the empty post of Speaker. Yadav had played a commendable role during the pro-democracy movement, and two of the seven major parties had pushed for her. But she was pipped to the post of the Speaker by the UML candidate.
Equally disillusioned is Shailaja Acharya, 63, leader of the Nepali Congress, Nepal's biggest party, who was Deputy Prime Minister in 1998. Although she is the only woman in Nepal to have reached that level, she has now been sidelined. Acharya is the niece of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, the undisputed leader of the Nepali Congress.
In Nepali politics - unlike Indian or Bangladeshi politics - family connections do not seem to do much for women. Rather, last year, when Girija Prasad Koirala's term ended and Acharya planned to contest, the other leaders in the party refused to accept her and persuaded Koirala to re-contest, though it meant changing the party statute.
"In Nepal, if you are a woman related to the prime minister, it doesn't mean advantages, it means sacrifices," rues Sujata Koirala, Koirala's daughter, herself a member of the Nepali Congress. "Each time I wanted to stand for a post, there was some controversy and I had to take a backseat so that there would be no aspersions cast on my father."
Sujata Koirala attributes the dearth of women in the top positions to the late arrival of democracy in Nepal. "Other SAARC countries have had democracy for a long time. In Nepal, we had our first taste of democracy in 1990," she says. Though late in coming, democracy has brought about positive changes and has uplifted women through education, health care and legal reforms carried out by multi-party democratic governments.
"Although we are a male-dominated society, our women have vast potential," says Sujata. "All they need is a little help. They understand the benefits a democratic system brought them and that is why thousands of apolitical wives, mothers and daughters joined the pro-democracy protests. We need to strengthen this young democracy. Once that is done, there would be more women at the top."
The reservation of seats for women in all government bodies is a start. The actual devolution of power, though, will take a little longer.
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