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Nepal Monitor: The National Online Journal

Women for an Inclusive Constituent Assembly

In one of the first public debates Kathmandu saw following the historic House of Representative declaration on May 18, activists called for an inclusive Constituent Assembly in which women are given their due place in the decision making process, reports PRABHAT KIRAN KOIRALA

KATHMANDU- It is May 19, 2006, a day after the House of Representatives made the historic declaration, paving the way for Constituent Assembly elections. Public discourse on a new, inclusive Nepal had just begun, inside the premises of the Russian Cultural Centre near Panipokhari, in the heart of Kathmandu.

The Women’s Rehabilitation Centre, a grass-root NGO based in Kathmandu, had gathered a cross-section of Nepali women and their representatives for the half-day interaction focused on the role and the participation of women in the upcoming constituent assembly.

Organizers stressed that inclusiveness in the present context does not just mean 50-50 representation of “universal” Nepali women and men, but rather the inclusiveness of different categories of women and different women sub groups. They were against a blanket approach of viewing women as a fixed category.

Minority Women’s Voices
Disabled women, sexual minorities, ethnic women groups, dalit women, and trafficking survivors voiced their concerns. Participants also included women laborers, sex workers, political and human rights activists, college and school students, and journalists. Similarly, members of various political parties also shared their views on the topic of inclusiveness.

The prevailing agreement among representatives was that women need to unite to achieve the fruits of political change. Although a historical change in the polity of the nation has taken place, such a political change is yet to reflect in the women’s struggle. Continuity of women’s revolution in the country is a must until there is complete social transformation, until the feudal structures and values reinforced by patriarchy are uprooted. Participants also stressed that solidarity among women of different groups, different categories (going beyond their ideological differences) is absolutely essential to establish a new Nepal.

The immediate outcome of the event was the formation of a network of women to actively work and contribute in the constituent assembly process. Dr. Renu Rajbhandari, the facilitator of the event and the head of WOREC, said the network will expand nationally. Any information on constituent assembly, and other programs and events organized around the issue will be shared widely in the network.

During her presentation, Indira Chapagain, an executive member of Nepal disabled women Association, highlighted the practical problems faced by disabled women. She stressed on the fact that disabled women are not able to exercise and utilize their basic rights. The work on disabled in Nepal has always been through a welfare approach, she said. Political parties, leaders and the women’s groups have not been able to reconcile with the fact that disabled also have rights and their rights need to be guaranteed and acted upon to make the guarantees a reality.
According to World Health Organization, 10 percent of Nepal’s population are disabled out of which 6 percent are women. This means there are 1.6 million disabled women living in Nepal today.

People with disabilities have special needs, such as facilities and buildings with handicap access. Since public facilities are not wheel-chair friendly physical movement of disabled is extremely restricted. That hampers their public visibility, giving credence to the wrong perception that there are not many disabled in the nation. Similarly, the basic health rights or the right to information of the hearing-impaired are at stake because lacking interpreters they cannot communicate with heath providers effectively.

Chapagain also said that mentally challenged women have never been addressed by the state or by any laws. She stated that the right to employment and daily livelihood is another basic right being violated. Disabled women cannot get employed in any government structures because the facilities are discriminatory and structurally organized to only cater to “normal” people. Chapagain noted that disabled women did participate in the 2063 jana aandolan, the mass movement of 2006, but the crucial question is where do they fit in the 50 to 51 percent ratio of country’s men and women in the constituent assembly?

Durga Sob, president of the Feminist Dalit Organization (FEDO), argued that the only way issues of Dalit women will be addressed is through a democratic republican setup. The dismantling of the present state structure of hierarchy, of patriarchy and the pervasive casteism will lead to a new state formation of equality that will be the basis for empowerment of the dalit women, she said. Sob suggested that the inclusion of dalit women in the CA is critical to the dignity of women.

Lucky Sherpa, Chair of the Himalayan Indigenous Women Network dwelt on the significance of diverse identities within the women’s movement. Not long ago, she noted, it was considered a taboo to talk about separate identities in the women’s movement. Sub-groups of women and women leaders of political parties would blame us of bringing a divide in the movement, and weakening the movement, she said, now with the new political process, ethnic women from all corners should be involved in the law and policy making of the country. Sherpa stressed that a proportionate representation in the constituent assembly is a must and all discriminatory laws should be nullified right away.

The May 19 event also provided an outlet to the voices of sexual minorities such as homosexuals, one of the most marginalized groups in the country. Ratna Shrestha, an advocate of the Blue Diamond Society, a homosexual organization, said that about 10 percent of Nepalis are homosexuals. She said due to social taboos, homosexuals have not been able to come out. Those that have come out have faced severe challenges: families have disowned them, schools have kicked them out, police have arbitrarily arrested them, and employers have sacked them. The list goes on.

Homosexuals in present day Nepal are seen as impurities for the society, she said. The inhibitive socio-cultural and religious values have created a bloc in the thought processes of the progressive political leaders as well. This is directly reflected on the laws formulated and implemented in the country. Shrestha argued that Nepal should pass laws on civic partnership, and same sex marriages. There should be facilities and laws that allow homosexuals to raise children.

Another participant made a poignant remark about the fate of sex trafficking survivors. Every year around 10,000 young Nepali girls are sold to brothels in neighboring India. More than 200,000 Nepali girls are involved in the Indian sex trade. Few are rescued or able to escape. Their hardships do not end if and when they return home.
Goma Rai, herself a victim of trafficking, and a reprehensive of Shakti Samuha, an organization of survivors like herself, dwelt on the challenges—socio-cultural and legal—faced by survivors of sex trafficking. She said real reintegration of trafficking survivors has not taken place precisely because families still hide the fact due to fear of stigma and marginalization. There is still a lack of rights-based approach to this issue. Survivors are yet to be treated as equal, dignified individuals.

Legally, a survivor is in a disadvantaged position in the eyes of Nepali law that favors the perpetrator. The survivor as the witness is not sufficient for the Nepali legal system. Even when the survivor identifies the perpetrator, it is not considered sufficient evidence by the court or police. Some trafficking survivors are HIV infected, but there are no laws and policies that cater towards HIV positive survivors, and there are no state facilities available to provide them the needed shelter, Rai said.

Rai lamented that the discrimination against survivors reflected even in the behaviour of professional groups. She said, for instance, that her organization, despite being a member of the Human Rights Network, was not informed about the various human rights activities taking place during the 19 days of jana anandolan recently. “The mindset persists of discrimination and marginalization of certain groups no matter how well versed the activists and political leaders are on the theory of equality,” she said.

Other participants included Subodh Pyakurel of Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC) and Ramchgandra Balami of Samyukta Bammorcha, or the United Left Front.

The Political Agenda
None of the parties have any official plans or existing agendas yet on including women on the issue of constituent assembly. Party representatives presented their personal opinions and shared the common sentiment that women’s revolution within the current political revolution has not ended.

Most agreed that there should be continuity of the present women’s aandolan to achieve the goals of equality. As long as patriarchal mindsets persist, rhetoric of equality will not become a reality, they noted.

Puna Maya Maharjan, a representative of the Majdoor Kisan Party, said lack of equal opportunity is the main obstacle to women’s development. Hence, only reservation and quotas will not solve the problem. For a meaningful participation of women, the process of grooming and producing efficient women should start right away. She informed that her party stands for a mandatory 33 percent women’s participation at all levels. This is one way of including and mainstreaming women, she said.

Rajendra Shrestha, who represented Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Lenisist), the second largest party, argued that for women to lead, any form of ancestral monarchy should perish. Hence, a democratic republic will provide an environment conducive for women to lead. Current political changes in Nepal are yet to correspond with the socio-cultural transformation that will end discrimination against women and other groups.

The erstwhile Westminster-style political system always limited women’s participation. Constituent assembly should not just be a legal political formality, but a real reflection of Nepal. Therefore, proportionate representation of women through CA elections is a must. Shrestha also informed that CPN-UML has guaranteed 33 percent women representatives in paper, but the party hasn’t been able to put that in action. He argued that state structure of the country was still discriminatory, and unjust. Another speaker of CPN UML was Pradeep Gyawali.

Sashi Shrestha of Jana Morcha Nepal said that the interim constitution team should have women representatives. The interim government should have proportionate representation and participation of women. Women need to form a common federation to systematically and cooperatively take up the issue of constituent assembly and women’s participation. There is a need for proportionate reservation in all institutions.

Urmila Pndey of Sadhbhawana (Anandidevi) party representative said that women should go beyond political parties and come together as one class to address women’s specific issues. There should be a proportionate reservation for women to be included in the democratic process.

Uma Adhikari, a representative of the Nepali Congress (Democratic) party, said inclusion is a fundamental part of his/her party’s constitution. However rhetoric is different from reality, he/she observed. It should begin with the peace process; there should be women representatives in the first phase of talks with the Maoists and the political party. He/she noted that the Maoists that have always claimed inclusion in their party principle, but they have so far failed to practice what they preach since there are no women members in their talk team. Deena Upadhaya was another representative of NC (D).

Ganga Adhikari, a representative of Akhil Nepal Mahila Sangh Krantikari, a women’s organization affiliated with the Maoists, said that Maoists will include women in the second phase of their talks. There should be proportionate participation of women in the interim government with 50 percent women in constituent assembly. Given the opportunity, women take the lead. But, she said, it is urgent for women to go beyond party limitations. Women need to unite with courage to put their issue first as women, not a member of a political party. Issues of sexual violence should be properly addressed, and issues of trafficking survivors should be sincerely taken up for remedy.
The consensus was that women leaders must get actively involved in the new democratic process, starting with the CA elections.

From the floor, participants pointed out that women form a significant part of the labouring community and yet they are the least talked about. Wage labourers are on the rise due to increase in internal displacement and forced migration triggered by the decade-long civil war. Their visibility is disregarded although they are seen all over urban areas from running nanglo shops to working day night in stone quarries. Their demands and concerns should be an important part of the inclusive new Nepal. Similarly, participants highlighted the need to spread the issues of constituent assembly throughout the country so that this does not become merely another project of urban, elite women.

An Inclusive Approach
Participants called for an inclusive approach in the struggle for women’s full rights and their full participation in the CA elections. Highlighting the outcome of the discussion, participants formulated a 10-point statement:

1) Women need to systematically form a common federation in a cooperative and coordinated fashion to take up the issue of constituent assembly and women’s participation.

2) Fundamental rights of disabled women that have so far been neglected in any political agenda should be a core focus in the construction of new Nepal.

3) The dismantling of the present state structure of hierarchy, of patriarchy and the pervasive casteism is a must for the formation of new Nepal which will then be the basis for empowerment of the dalit women, of them being and living dignified lives.

4) In the new Nepal, ethnic and adhivasi women from all corners should be involved in the law and policy making of the country. A proportionate representation in the constituent assembly is a must and all discriminatory laws should be nullified right away.

5) Women labourers should have a proportionate representation and participation in the upcoming process.

6) There should be immediate abolishment of all discriminatory laws against homosexuals such as one year imprisonment for same-sex relationships. New Nepal should pass laws on civic partnerships and same sex marriages.

7) The government must adopt a rights-based approach towards the issue of sex trafficking survivors. The survivor as the witness is not sufficient for the Nepali legal system. Such legal barriers should be immediately eliminated as the initial step of empowerment of trafficking survivors.

8) There should be proportionate participation of women in the interim government with 50 percent women in constituent assembly; not women as one universal group, but with proportionate representation of women of all caste, class, sexual orientation, political affiliation and other visible or invisible challenges. A proper mechanism should be developed and implemented for proportionate reservation in all institutions.

9) Women should go beyond political parties and ideologies and come together as one class to address women specific issues. Women’s issues of equality and justice transcend the current political development.

10) A complete social, cultural and political transformation of Nepal is necessary for women’s revolution to become successful. The challenges for women are not just the state structures, but the mindsets of the leaders so far leading Nepal. A complete transformation that addresses demands of women’s revolution and marginalized groups will only ensure the completion of women’s revolution.

Whatever the participants' political leanings, they stressed women’s need to assert themselves in the new democratic process. Dr. Renu Rajbhandari, the facilitator of the event, said that solidarity among women of different groups and categories was absolutely essential to establish a new Nepal. Hence, at the end the formation of a loose, inclusive network of women to actively work and contribute in the constituent assembly process was announced.

Mr. Prabhat Kiran Koirala maintains interest in social movements. He is a contributing writer for Nepal Monitor.

Posted by Editor on June 8, 2006 3:52 AM