Photo: ESP/UNDP

Persistent and enduring gender gap in political representation is a global issue. As of 2017, only 23% of the parliamentarians in the world are women. At ministerial level, women’s representation is even smaller than that, largely concentrated in environment, family, social affairs, gender equality portfolios while registering insignificant presence in defence, transport, information, finance portfolios. As for the global data on women at local governance level, it is few and far between. 

In the context of South Asia, many research studies have been conducted to understand women’s political participation or lack thereof. Some of the commonly cited barriers for women’s political engagement and progression include politics of ‘money and muscle’, patronage network, patriarchal norms and unequal gender relations. My recent research, funded by UNDP as part of ‘Ten Years of Peace in Nepal’ fellowship, aimed to unpack how those interconnected factors and wider power dynamics unfold at the ground level, taking the case study of 2017 local elections in Nepal. 

Numerically speaking

The 2017 local elections, which were held for the very first time in almost two decades, have resulted in 40 percent of women’s representation in local governments. Often hailed as a historic moment for women’s political inclusion, those electoral outcomes were largely facilitated by legislated gender quotas that mandates 40 percent female representation at ward membership level and ensures at least one female candidacy for either mayor/chief or deputy mayor/chief position at municipality/rural municipality level.

Dissecting the narrative of 40 percent female representation, however, presents a much-nuanced picture that highlights ‘Nepali woman’ is not a homogenous category. For example, Bhola Paswan’s extensive analysis of local election results show that although Dalit women’s representation is the highest at 47 percent, mainly due to Dalit women ward member quotas, they register negligible presence in deputy mayor positions, which has 91 percent female representation primarily from Khas-Arya followed by Janajati backgrounds. In key political positions as mayor/chief and ward chair, only 2 percent women are represented.

At the same time, the dominance of Khas Arya men remains unchallenged as they record highest representation in key decision-making positions as 48 per cent mayors, 44 per cent chairpersons and also, 44 per cent ward chairs despite constituting only 16 per cent of the total population. Meanwhile, Dalit men’s representation stands at just 2.6 per cent while Dalit women constitute 18.7 per cent of the total representatives.

Those stark differences collectively reaffirm existing research findings that show how quotas increase inclusion of women but mostly at the cost of minority group men, not majority group men. Hence, it cannot be assumed that women’s political inclusion directly translates into reconfiguration of existing power structures, in fact it may even reproduce and reinforce other forms of marginalisation.

Ground reality

Beyond numeric representational inequalities, what does local politics and democracy look like at the ground level? How did women electoral candidates from diverse backgrounds engage in electoral processes? Those were the key questions when I started my fieldwork in Rajbiraj located in Saptari district, which holds great political significance due to its contribution in past democratic movements and most recently in Madheshi identity movement. Based on 35 semi-structured qualitative interviews, primarily with women candidates and party workers, some of my research findings are as follows:

All the interviewed female candidates came from political family background and except for few participants who had been active in party politics, personal connections played a crucial role in securing access to electoral ticket. There was a rampant search for female candidates to fill gender quota requirement. Rather than promoting their own women party workers, political parties were scouting for external candidates with influential political and educational background particularly for decision-making positions like deputy mayor and for that they relied on personal/political connections. Consequently, women who were situated in close proximity to men with political power benefited the most.

Such political privilege and personal connections, however, did not guarantee any protection against gender and caste-based discrimination that women candidates and party workers continue to face within their political parties, and in society at large. Commenting on the difference between women and men politicians, one of the female party workers said – ‘Women do politics drinking tea, while men do politics drinking alcohol.’ Fleshing out this narrative further shows that one of the key elements of ‘doing’ politics requires appeasing party cadres, predominantly male with incentives such as alcohol and money. Drinking alcohol also takes place at specific place and time, and having the liberty to be present in those spaces and social acceptance of engaging in those activities remain highly gendered.

At the same time, economic resources required to fund incentives for party workers and voters is rooted in unequal gender dynamics as male politicians tend to have more control over their property and assets compared to female politicians and thus, the latter struggle torun high-cost political campaigns, which becomes mandatory for key political positions. Many interviewees highlight pervasive clientelism that exist both within and outside political parties, lack of financial resources and minimal family support as key hindrances for women’s political participation.  

Gendered subjects

Meanwhile, exploring how patriarchal norms shape gendered subjectivities i.e. self-awareness and consciousness of the subject remain important to explain some of the internalised barriers. Many participants also draw upon family and “good guardian” as references when explaining political leadership qualities and ‘good’ governance. The common narrative is if there is a good guardian, then the family flourishes and if not, it won’t. In the given context, however, predominant family structure is a male-headed social arrangement, which (un) consciously legitimises and naturalises male authority both within and outside family set up.

From participants’ collective narratives, it is also evident that negative social stereotypes about women as dependent, needy, fearful, passive, submissive, domestic have all been internalised at different levels but at the end, there is an implicit assumption that social structures and constraints are given, and as for challenging women’s subordinate position it is down to individual strength and endeavour.

To conclude, political spaces do not exist in isolation, rather they co-exist with other social, cultural and economic spaces. And hence, understanding how people navigate across those spaces on an everyday basis and how those ‘everyday navigations’ inform their subjectivities and political outlook is crucial.  No doubt, gender quotas have symbolic value but to transform descriptive representation into meaningful engagement requires simultaneous interventions focus on creating wider socio-economic opportunities for women, addressing unequal gender division of labour both within and outside household arrangements, deconstructing internalised stereotypes and challenging paternalistic and undemocratic institutions including political parties. 

About the Author

Sangita Thebe Limbu is a researcher based at the Martin Chautari Research Institute. She was awarded the Chautari Peace Research Fellowship 2017 funded by UNDP.

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