As we enter the second century of celebrations to mark March 8 as the International Women’s Day (IWD), my mind questions: So what has changed for women globally and in Nepal? What are some of the key markers of women’s progress and empowerment? Scanning the history and the issues women have pursued for their empowerment, I cannot help but notice that though there has been great progress on a global scale, in Nepal the more things change the more they remain the same.
In 1908, 15,000 women gathered in New York to demand equality at work and voting rights. In 1910, as a follow-up an International Conference of Working Women was organized in Copenhagen. At this conference of over 100 participants from 17 nations, Clara Zetkin, the leader of the Women’s Office of the Socialist Democratic Party of Germany, tabled the idea of celebrating a day every year to press demands for women’s equality in each of the countries represented at the conference.
In 1913, women of various European nations decided that March 8 would be designated IWD, and in 1914 they rallied that day to express solidarity for peace. After the end of World War 2 and the birth of the United Nations, the UN organizes annual IWD conference to coordinate and focus on women’s progress in the social, economic and political spheres.
At the global level, a number of things no doubt changed for women. Women have recast their roles in the last 100 years. They have become presidents, prime ministers, scientists, astronauts, vice-chancellors of universities, judges, generals and admirals, etc. They have explored their sexuality and openly demand reproductive rights. The UN Convention on Elimination on Discrimination of Women (CEDAW) has been ratified by more than 180 nations. UN Women has been established. But, even now, in some parts of the world, the more things change the more they remain the same for women.
Nepali women have also been participating in these empowerment processes from the early 1950s, when women leaders of the Nepali Congress (NC) lobbied successfully for voting rights. Later in history, 1975 marked another watershed with Nepal’s government sending delegations to attend the international women’s conferences in Mexico, Copenhagen and Nairobi. In the early 1980s, the Women’s Services Coordination Committee was formed as an apex body, while at the grassroots the Production Credit for Rural Women programme was initiated for economic empowerment of women. In 1985, the inheritance law was amended to grant daughters of parents without male offspring the right to inherit ancestral property, prior to which nephews inherited it. After the historic change in 1990, the Interim Government ratified CEDAW. The government led by the Nepali Congress established the Ministry of Women in 1996 and the Women’s Commission in 2002. The 11th Amendment to the Civil Code was also passed that year. Landmark decisions reinforcing women’s rights were given by the Supreme Court of Nepal. The Interim Constitution 2006 perhaps guaranteed the maximum of rights to Nepal women, in all of South Asia.
Nepal witnessed unprecedented political, economic and social changes in the last 15 years. We witnessed armed conflict and two successful peaceful People’s Movement and Nepal became a democratic republic state. Nepalese social development indicators have changed for the better. Women’s representation in the CA is almost 33 per cent, and women are participating in large numbers in private sector jobs in banking and the media. Unfortunately, it is the ones at the top — the political patriarchs that are specialised in ensuring the more things change the more they remain the same.
Despite all the guarantees made for equality and inclusion in political manifestos and political speeches, the top rung of male politicians in Nepal are now in the process of undoing the equal rights granted to women by the Interim Constitution, while finalizing the new constitution of the Democratic Republic of Nepal. Despite accepting the doctrines of Karl, Marx, Mao and promising to adhere to socialist principles and abolishing monarchy, feudalism still rules the hearts and minds of political patriarchs and equality for women in terms of citizenship rights under any and all circumstances is viewed by them as against “tradition” and “patriotic” values. The very premises of writing the new constitution can be questioned if equality is not guaranteed to women under all circumstances. All the grand posturing, lip service and cosmetic changes will not white-wash the feudal mindsets of the male leaders.
The male politicians may find that not granting equality to women in the new constitution has alienated them to such an extent that they refuse to participate in the final voting, despite party whips. A few women CA members may even resign in symbolic protest. Where does that leave the image of male leaders of Nepal? The more things change the more they remain the same.