South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

By Sudeshna Sarkar

KATHMANDU, May 26, 2011 (IPS) – With the May 28 target for a new constitution approaching and Nepal’s coalition government admitting it would not make the deadline, women are pushing for rights they want enshrined in the document.

The campaign made them bear the brunt of a government ban on demonstrations around parliament announced on Tuesday, ahead of a critical ballot battle between Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khanal and the opposition parties with the beleaguered premier seeking one more year to draft the new constitution.

Even before the ban became public knowledge, riot police swung into action, beginning an assault on the women coming from almost 70 of Nepal’s 75 districts who have been holding peaceful meetings in front of parliament, asking for the protection of their rights.

Police said they had arrested 32 women demonstrators, including some of Nepal’s best-known rights activists like Tulasalata Amatya, president of Shanti Malika, a network of nine organisations working for women’s empowerment.

Others arrested were Rita Thapa, founder of Tewa, a non-government organisation working for the economic self-sufficiency of women’s groups in villages, and Stella Tamang, founder of Bikalpa Gyan Tatha Bikash Kendra Ashram, a school for children from her Tamang community, who are the worst victims of human trafficking.

The demonstrations started on the Nepalese New Year on Apr. 14. Over 40 women’s organisations from across the country gathered on the pavement opposite parliament to sing, dance and address passersby for six hours a day. It was intended to remind the nearly 600 MPs that women existed and that they expected the constitution to be finished by May 28, guaranteeing their rights.

On May 15, when it was clear that work on the constitution was not making any progress, they lengthened the vigil to 12 hours.

“The constitution of 1990 said during elections, political parties would have to field at least five percent women,” says Sharada Pokharel, a former MP and president of Women’s Security Pressure Group. “But the last census, conducted in 2001, showed women accounted for 51 percent of the population. So we want the new constitution to give us 50 percent representation in all state institutions.”

Women MPs cutting across party lines, even those from the ruling parties, are also supporting the demand.

Jayapuri Gharti Magar is a senior member of the Maoist party, a former guerrilla organisation that fought a 10-year battle against the government to abolish Nepal’s Hindu monarchy. After signing a peace accord in 2006 and contesting elections two years later, it is now the largest party in parliament as well as the ruling alliance.

Gharti Magar’s family members, who lived in the remote western district of Rolpa that was the cradle of the Maoist insurgency, were imprisoned during the “People’s War”, while her husband Bibek KC was killed by the army.

This month, for her contribution to the movement, the party nominated her minister for women, children and social welfare. But the 40-year-old refused to take the oath of office.

“We live in a male-dominated society,” she says bitterly. “Even the communist parties, which pledge equality for women, are no different.”

Gharti Magar said that if women had not participated in the People’s War and the pro-democracy movement against King Gyanendra’s army-propped government in 2006, neither would have been successful.

“So when the parties drafted the interim constitution in 2007, they gave 33 percent representation to women. But no one is actually implementing it. Though there are 33 percent women MPs in parliament as eyewash, there are just four ministers (in a 36-member cabinet),” she said.

Gharti Magar said the caucus of 196 women MPs has petitioned the parties as well as prime minister Jhala Nath Khanal and parliament chair Subash Nembang, asking them to ensure 33 percent representation for women in the council of ministers and all state organs.

“If they still ignore us, we will seek legal redress,” she said.

While Gharti Magar is an influential legislator, Bimala Paswan is a daily wage labourer who has come from a landless squatters’ colony in Siraha in the southern lowlands to add her voice to the call for women’s rights.

“We want the right to land,” says the 30-year-old Paswan. “We want the new constitution to ensure the equitable distribution of land as part of the promised land reforms, and we want it done quickly.”

The other rights demanded by women are the right to land and housing, keeping in mind the plight of landless women who are frequent victims of rape and murder, and wives being turned out of homes by abusive polygamous husbands. They also want domestic violence to be recognised as a form of torture with the state bearing the responsibility of ensuring compensation for battered women.

Despite the setbacks, Nepal’s women, used to long and hard battles for every little right they have, including the right to get a passport without the husband’s approval, say they will carry on with the campaign.

“We are continuing our protests outside the prohibited area,” says Dilli Chaudhary. The 38-year-old belongs to the Tharu community, an exploited indigenous group whose members are still sold in bonded slavery.

Chaudhary, a health worker counselling village women in Siraha, is a rarity in a community that sends out daughters as young as 12 years old to work as virtually unpaid slaves.

“It may take time but we are going to win,” she says. “The MPs who betrayed us will have to return to their own constituencies one day. Then we will tie a rope to their feet and drag them through the villages, teaching them a lesson they will never forget.”