Women’s concerns won’t be addressed unless they are at the decision-making level

Nepal Communist Party lawmaker Binda Pandey strongly lobbied for Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe’s appointment as speaker of the House of Representatives. However, despite being a strong contender for the post, Tumbahangphe had to resign as deputy speaker because of internal party dynamics and constitutional provision. When she resigned, she said patriarchy was much stronger than monarchy in Nepal. Roshan S Nepal of The Himalayan Times caught up with Pandey, a strong proponent of women’s rights, to talk about state of women’s representation in the country. Excerpts: 

As someone who strongly lobbied for Tumbahangphe’s appointment as speaker of the HoR, how do you look at her resignation as deputy speaker? 

We’ve installed a stable government after a long political movement. This is the time to set up systems. Everybody agrees that the deputy speaker has the first right to claim the post of speaker if the post falls vacant for any reason. Second, the constitution’s spirit is inclusive participation and Tumbahangphe’s is a Janajati woman. Third, it’s always said women never dare to claim top posts, and only seek quotas. We did not say Tumbahangphe deserved the post just to ensure inclusive participation. She is not less than anybody in terms of qualification, experience, capability and political background.

Our constitution is the best in the world when it comes to inclusion. This is because we have ensured at least one woman office bearer almost everywhere.

Women have suffered the most in every political movement. But whenever such movements reach conclusion and it’s time to institutionalise achievements, women are sidelined. However, things have now somewhat changed. Women are no longer limited to agitating in the streets. They have reached policy and decision making positions.

Prosperity is not only about economic prosperity. The most important thing is human dignity, and social and cultural transformation. Representation in policy making bodies should be in line with the concepts of gender balance, regional balance and class balance. Therefore, Tumbahangphe’s appointment to the speaker’s post would have been just. We never said she should be appointed speaker because of her gender.

When she resigned, Tumbhangpahe said patriarchy was stronger than monarchy. Isn’t that a blow to the Nepal Communist Party that has always claimed to be a progressive party?

If we look at the party’s history, there’s no doubt that the NCP is a progressive party. I say this because this party has played a crucial role in empowering Tumbahangphe to claim the speaker’s post. The party taught us about equality and that women could participate equally in all sectors. It also taught us that women should break all traditional superstitious barriers. Therefore, the party instilled confidence in women that they are not less than their male colleagues.

Women have always been at the forefront of political movements in Nepal. From Yogmaya of Bhojpur 100 years ago to Rewanta Kumari Acharya to Divya Koirala to Sahana and Sadhana Pradhan to Sailaja Acharya and Lila Kattel and Mina Paudel, women have always remained in the forefront in every difficult situation. But today they say ‘women have been given this or that’. This is the most violent phrase used against women.

Until 1989, parties always encouraged women to be at the forefront of everything. But things changed after restoration of multi-party democracy. The six-member Constitution Reforms Recommendation Committee did not have any woman member. Then we submitted an 18-point recommendation demanding that the constitution should include provisions that state bodies should have 50 per cent women’s representation, citizenship through mother, equal right to parental property and strong laws against violence against women. The then constitution ensured 5 per cent women’s representation in the House, but the other things were left out on the ground that the social setting would be destroyed.

The same leaders, who taught us that society could not be rebuilt without destroying it, told us that empowering women would destroy society. This is when we launched the movement demanding women’s representation in decision-making bodies to ensure their concerns were addressed.

When we were about to launch the movement against the royal regime in 2005, we told the leadership of the parties we would not participate unless our concerns were addressed. The leadership of all seven parties promised to address our concerns and we joined the movement.

After the movement’s success, 16 associations raised their voice demanding that the restored Parliament should address our agenda. However, the national declaration of 18 May 2006 did not include any of our agenda. This was because there was no woman among those drafting the declaration. After such humiliation, President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, who was the UML’s deputy chair then, tabled a fourpoint public importance motion in the Parliament. When she tabled the motion, she also faced political violence similar to what Tumbahangphe faced now. But Bhandari did not budge, and the Parliament unanimously passed the motion.

After that, a nine-member constitution drafting committee was formed, again without a single woman. Again women protested in the streets for more than a week. Finally, the committee included four women members — Sushila Karki, Pushpa Bhusal, Chhatra Gurung and Shanta Rai. Our main fight was to include our agenda in the constitution. After we ensured women’s representation at the decision-making level, the interim constitution of 2006 included women’s agenda.

Then in 2015, an interesting event happened which proved women had to be in the decision making level to ensure their concerns were addressed. It was decided that four leaders — Sushil Koirala, KP Sharma Oli, Pushpa Kamal Dahal and the fourth leader, I do not remember his name — would finalise the constitution draft. The then UML Deputy Chair Bhandari did not leave the room even when all the leaders left it to the four to decide. She said one-thirds women representation should not just be ensured in candidature, but should be there in the final shape of any public institution.

No leader spoke. After she did not budge, Oli, in his own witty style, said her concerns were addressed because none of the leaders had opposed her. Therefore, only if there are women at the decision-making level, women’s concerns will be addressed.

Coming to the present context, the nine-member secretariat deciding on the NCP candidate for speaker, does not have a woman. That’s why the secretariat did not even consider Tumbahangphe as a contender for the post. If the secretariat had one-third women’s representation as per the law, chances of Tumbahangphe becoming the speaker would have been much higher. If this situation continues, many women will have to face Tumbahangphe’s fate in the future.

What actually happens to parties and their leadership that makes them forget everything, not only women’s rights, when they reach state power?

The attitude among those in the mainstream is that only they have decision-making ability. A political movement cannot succeed only with the participation of mainstream people. Therefore, the mainstream people raise women’s issues, Dalit issues, and worker’s issues, among others, to bring everybody on board. However, after they reach state power, they think they can take decisions on behalf of others. I give one example. Our party office did not have separate washrooms for men and women earlier. When the party decided to build one, the women’s washroom did not have a hanger to keep bags. Had a woman taken the decision, she would have ensured the washroom had a hanger. Men do not know that a hanger is needed. Therefore, only a woman or Dalit or a worker knows their actual need. But the political leadership has not realised this fact.

You said discrimination against women was the result of there being only men at the final decision-making level. How can women reach that level?

Whenever we’ve gained something, all women and those advocating gender equality have come together irrespective of their parties and ideologies. During the 2005 movement, there was inter-party women’s alliance. In the first Constituent Assembly of 2007, many women’s concerns were addressed because we had women’s caucus in the Parliament. There was also a women’s struggle committee encompassing all women’s associations outside. We also had a women’s department in the then UML. Whenever that unity got dismantled, we lost.

After 2013, we have not been allowed to form a women’s caucus in the Parliament. No party has women’s department. There’s no unity among women’s associations now. Platforms that enable women to come together have been demolished. So women should realise this fact and make sure they resurrect such platforms. If we can do so, we can of course reach the final decision-making level. If we just stick to the party’s decision, which in fact is men’s decision, we have to wait a long time to reach the final decision-making position.

The NCP’s committees still do not have women’s representation as per the constitutional provisions.How do you look at this situation?

We talk about good governance, but we are not following the constitution and laws adopted by the Parliament. We have not implemented our own party statute. We have not been acting as per our own policy document. As far as prosperity is concerned, society cannot be prosperous if only one section of society becomes prosperous. Talking about democracy, all sections of society should be ensured equal representation everywhere. The constitution envisions socialism-oriented democracy, but we have not even exhibited basic conduct of liberal democracy. Therefore, to ensure prosperity, all the citizens should feel they are fundamentally sovereign citizens of the country. But I doubt the top political leadership has ever thought whether all 30 million citizens have the same feeling. In terms of development, we need to look at it from two perspectives — physical development and human development. From human development perspective, all social anomalies and negative cultures should be demolished. But have we been able to do that Those at the top decision-making levels should lead by example.

You’ve had opinions different from your party’s as far as the Citizenship Bill is concerned. Will this Bill be passed in this Parliament session?

I and my party’s opinion on the Citizenship Bill are same. It’s them, who are saying that women should not be given equal status to save the nation, that are against the party’s view. Documents of both former CPN-UML and CPN-MC and documents of the NCP do not talk about discrimination against women. The issue of citizenship through mother is not new and was raised even while the drafting of the constitution of 1989. But those at the final decision-making level abandoned the official party line. Even while drafting of the constitution in 2015, the then CPN-UML and CPN-MC abandoned their own policies as far as citizenship was concerned. When we asked our leadership why they had abandoned the official party line, they said they did so as a compromise with Madhes-based parties. Although this constitution has mentioned equal citizenship rights, it has discriminated against women on the pretext of the father’s nationality.

As to whether or not this Parliament session will pass the bill , Nepali Congress lawmakers are against the bill, or else it would have been endorsed in the previous House session. In the fourth House session, the NCP had proposed that in the case of a Nepali citizen married to a foreign citizen, a certain number of years as probation period be provisioned before issuing them citizenship. However, the NC opposed it and said a foreign woman married to a Nepali man could be issued citizenship immediately, but a foreign man married to a Nepali woman could not be issued citizenship. Madhes-based parties also have views similar to the NC’s. Therefore, if the NC adheres to its ideology of ending discrimination against women, the bill can be passed from the House, or else not.

What are your views on some controversial bills such as Media Council Bill and Information Technology Bill, among others?There are concerns that these bills curb civil liberties and freedom of expression.

There are many good aspects of the bills, but sadly nobody talks about them. The problematic aspects are provisions related to punishments. I feel these aspects should be revised, and I am sure our party also has same opinion. These issues should have been addressed in the respective House committee. I hope these bills will be endorsed after revising such provisions.

Most of the Bills tabled by the government have landed in controversy. Why?

I have already said we’ve changed the system, but we’ve not been able to change our mentality and the way we function. We need to change the way the bills are drafted. Presently, the Bills are drafted by the line ministry and it is forwarded to the law ministry. After that, the Cabinet’s bills committee discusses the bill, and after its nod the bill is tabled in the House. My opinion is that after the law ministry clears the bill and before it is forwarded to the Cabinet, it should be discussed in the respective House committee. This will ensure the broad ownership of lawmakers. We hold theoretical discussion on the bill in the Parliament after the bill is tabled. But we do not note down things raised during the theoretical discussion and discuss them during clause-wise discussion in the House committee. Next, what’s wrong in sending for public discussion any bill of public interest? Instead of a bill getting stuck for four consecutive House sessions, why can’t we take the bill among the public and pass it in one session? Therefore, the problem is the way we function and our attitude. We need to change this.

What are your views on code of conduct adopted by the party recently?

I take it positively. But there’s the question of implementation. The ninth convention of the then CPN-UML had adopted a code of conduct for ending violence against women. However, while drafting this new code of conduct, it seems the old one was not even used as reference. Therefore, if we had kept in mind the effectiveness of implementation of the old code while drafting the new one, we could have expected better implementation of the new one. There’s the practice of formulating documents and forgetting. Even our top leaders are holding flashy events to mark marriage anniversaries and birthdays. Is it that only lower-level party members should abide by the code? So the leadership must lead by example. Second, we need a monitoring mechanism to ensure effective implementation. We just cannot depend on the party’s disciplinary commission. The code of conduct does not include many things related to violence against women and untouchability. Therefore, the monitoring system should have equal representation of those communities to ensure effective implementation.