Days after Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli took charge, the country saw an upsurge of red flags and feminist slogans as Bidhya Devi Bhandari was sworn in as the first female President. Bhandari’s elevation to the ceremonial post on 28 October should come as little surprise, given her close comradeship with the Prime Minister as they share common allegiance with the ruling Communist Party of Nepal- Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).
As chairperson of the All Nepal Women’s Association (ANWA), the women’s wing of CPN-UML, Bhandari had fought from underground for the rights of women, including those from backward communities. From making 33 percent women representation mandatory in political parties to achieving equal property rights, Bhandari has several successful combats to her name. She has also been credited for overthrowing the feudal panchayat system in the 1980s to restore democracy.
“Politics, in our region, and I’m sure elsewhere too, is not based on principles, but on political benefits and compromises,” says Sapana Pradhan Malla, gender advisor to the office of the Prime Minister since 2010. “The Constitution writing process in Nepal is a result of this kind of politics.” Malla is known to have played a crucial role in negotiating women’s rights in Nepal’s first Constituent Assembly (2008-10). A senior advocate at the Supreme Court of Nepal, and a former Constituent Assembly member, she traces the Himalayan country’s crusade against a 240-year-old Hindu monarchy to finally become a secular republic.
The Nepalese had been first promised a democratic constitution in 1951 but this process really got underway after a peace deal was signed with Maoist insurgents in 2006. It was unanimously decided by all major political parties that Nepal’s longstanding economic and political problems regarding class, caste, gender and regional discrimination would be addressed through an accountable and democratic Constitution. Sadly, they failed to rise above their vested interests. And, Nepal continued to suffer from a deadlock over the need for federalism and the extent to which the new federal units could reflect the identity of various marginalised groups including women, children, dalits, and madhesis.
The second Constituent Assembly, formed in 2013, with the Congress and CPN-UML in majority was supposed to make amendments to the existing provisions regarding rights of the marginalised, one among them being the regressive women’s citizenship laws. But till today, the Constitution, which is receiving histrionic patronage for being ‘progressive’ with veteran communist leader Oli at the helm of power, fails to amend its citizenship provisions that relegate women to ‘second class’ status.
“In other major parties like Nepali Congress and UCPN (Maoist), there were hardly any women with high portfolios,” Sujita Sakya, a central committee member of ANWA, tells Tehelka. “Bhandari was the only woman leader who participated in high-level political meetings, took stands and provided solutions. Her compassionate nature and strong willpower helped in uniting the voices of all Nepalese women.” Malla voices similar thoughts when she says how Bhandari has been relentlessly struggling to ensure 33 percent women’s participation in the state mechanism and Constituent Assembly since the inception of Interim Parliament of 2007.
With changing times, Nepal is witnessing a marked shift from male dominated ethos to one with equal opportunities and legal rights. Hence, it is no wonder that Bhandari’s appointment is being hailed as an important achievement in the history of Nepalese women’s movement. “It is a pleasant coincidence that the year 2015-16 finds women as head of state, speaker of Legislative- Parliament and Chief Justice in Nepal,” utters a jubilant Sakya.
However, Bhandari’s support towards the new Constitution which discriminates against Nepali women in securing citizenship rights for their children needs a critical eye. The ‘feminist’ president had reportedly told the local media, “Whether we agree or not, in eastern culture and tradition, a woman is entirely devoted to a man. This may be discriminatory but our society has always functioned this way.”