Nepal: Himalayan Women Get Set For the Fray

Nepal goes to the polls next weekend to determine whether the country will continue with a 250-year-old monarchy or become a federal republic, with Nepal’s Maoist guerrillas becoming part of the electoral process after almost 16 years of strife and as many as 13,000 people killed.

Direct elections will select 240 seats, with 335 to be filled on the basis of proportional representation, and the remaining 26 through nomination. Some 55 parties are fielding a record 10,019 candidates.

But although women, 51 percent of Nepal's 27 million population, played a key role in the pro-democracy movement that began two years ago and made the election possible, only 3,432 women are among the candidates. Women are largely thought of by their parties as not having sufficient appeal to pull off a victory. Of the 4,021 candidates fighting for the 240 elected seats, only 373 are women.

Several women nominees have been assigned to by their parties to constituencies where their parties are weak and their rivals formidable – the most extreme example in Rolpa district in midwestern Nepal, where a woman, Bhim Kumari Budamagar, is up against one of the country’s most compelling candidates, Pushpa Kama Dalal, the chief of the Maoist Party, who is better known as Prachanda, “the fierce one.”

Although Budamagar's Nepali Congress Party, headed by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, is the biggest party in parliament, it has no presence in Rolpa and Budhamagar is likely to be trounced, analysts say. In Dang, they expect another Maoist stronghold, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, the Minister for Information and Communications, and also a Maoist, to inflict a crushing defeat on his rival, the Nepali Congress’s Anita Devkota.

In the proportional representation system 3,059 women are contesting for 5,998 seats, indicating that the parties think it is the banner that will win, not the individual. But despite the under-representation, all eyes are on the women contestants. Here are some important ones, who can be expected to exert a strong influence on Nepali politics for decades to come despite the clear gender bias:

Sujata Koirala, Prime Minister Koirala's daughter, is contesting in Sunsari district in south Nepal. The 50-year-old mother of two has a formidable rival in Upendra Yadav, the chief of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum. Sunsari is a key district in the Terai plains where the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, a new ethnic party, has established itself as a rising power. Sujata's chances appear to be slim unless she manages to swing the Terai or Madhesi community's vote.

Ironically, being the Prime Minister's daughter may be her biggest hurdle. She is regarded as her father's mouthpiece, delivering what he can't due because of political considerations. Recently she made herself unpopular by saying that Nepal needed its king to retain its unique cultural identity. At a time when parliament has stripped King Gyanendra of all his power and declared the nation a republic, the statement is regarded to have been made on behalf of her father, who couldn't do it himself for fear of the Maoists.

If Sujata has been projected by her father as Nepal’s future prime minister, Maoists regard their minister for Physical Planning and Works, Hisila Yami, 48, a professional architect, as being fit for the top job. Yami is probably the only contestant whose husband is also contesting a seat. Her husband, fellow architect Dr Baburam Bhattarai, number two in the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), is fighting from Gorkha district in Midwest Nepal, from where the royal family hails.

"In Gorkha district, people know me as Baburam Bhattarai's wife," Yami says. "But in Kathmandu valley, people know me for who I am and what I did."

Yami is contesting from the valley, which is dominated by the Newar community, to which she belongs. The clannish community also remembers her father, Dharma

Ratna Yami, whose land and property was confiscated and who was imprisoned for taking part in an earlier pro-democracy movement. Yami cites her work in building new roads in the capital, the cleaning of Bagmati, one of the prime rivers in Kathmandu valley; and efforts to complete an ambitious drinking water project with the assistance of the Asian Development Bank; as her strengths. Although not a women's minister, she is trying to garner women's votes by promising job-oriented training for women from the backward communities.

A third high-profile debutante is Arzu Rana Deuba, wife of the three-time prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, and a well-known social worker. Arzu is not taking part in a direct fight. The Nepali Congress Party has nominated her for the proportional representation. She runs three NGOs that help provide education, maternal healthcare and shelters for victims of domestic violence. If she wins, Arzu intends to press for reproductive healthcare for women that will be backed by law, get the dormant domestic violence bill passed and press for tougher laws to end child labour.

As the elected assembly will write a new constitution, Nepal's third largest party, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), has tried to rope in members of the civil society, including human rights activists and lawyers. For the PR system, it is fielding apolitical first-timers, like Renu Raj Bhandari, former head of the women's unit at the National Human Rights Commission, and legal activist Sapna Pradhan Malla.

Malla's Forum for Law, Women and Development has spearheaded legal battles to make abortion legal in Nepal, helped divorced Muslim women get alimony, and stopped the recruitment of minors into the army and the police.

The 43-year-old Masters in Law from Delhi University says her focus will be on training the elected members. "You need people who can contribute to the building of a new Nepal," she says. "How can they contribute if their own potential has not been realised?"

Women's Feature Service