Local polls catapult women to leadership rung, says Jha

Ranju Kumari Jha (Thakur) is chairperson of the Women, Elderly Citizens and Social Welfare Committee of the Legislature-Parliament. Born in 2023 BS in Rajbiraj, CPN-UML lawmaker Jha plunged into student politics in 2045 BS, and became a member of the All Nepal National Free Students Union. She got elected as district secretary of the All Nepal Women’s Association, a sister wing of the UML. Jha did her MA LLB from Tribhuvan University and practiced law for some years.

Jha insists that the upcoming local election offers a huge opportunity to women to climb up the leadership rung. She talked to Ritu Raj Subedi and Arpana Adhikari of The Rising Nepal on diverse issues pertaining to political empowerment of women and UML’s position in the Terai, among others. Excerpts.

The new constitution has obliged the political parties to pick women for the important posts of the local units. How do you see this happening as the country heads for the local polls in almost two decades?

The Local Body Election Act has made it mandatory to field a woman either in the post of chair or vice-chair of the village councils, municipalities and district coordination committees. Likewise, at least two women - one from a Dalit community - should be elected in the ward committee. As per the Act, half of the four-member ward committee should be women. The local poll slated for May 14 will elect at least 13,000 women to various posts. Of them, 6,000 will be from the Dalit community.

Money and muscles have a role in the election. The women candidates in Nepal have little access to financial resources. The political parties must give an opportunity to women candidates to get elected so that they will be at the helm of power. In the same manner, the state should create an environment for the female candidates to participate in the election without any obstruction. Women empowerment is impossible without their access to politics and representation in the local bodies. I’m hopeful that this election will set a milestone in empowering women.

However, there is a tendency to project women as candidates fit only for the post of deputy, not the head of local bodies. What is your comment on it?

It has been 19 years since the local election were held in the country. The local bodies have been without people’s representatives for such a long time. Many political leaders, mostly the male ones, have been waiting for a long time to exercise power. During this period, women’s access to politics has also improved. They have proved that if provided the opportunity, they can work shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts. But, our entire political system is still male-dominated, and doubt women’s capability. It is an understood fact that female leaders are treated as subordinates. If the women candidates are elected to major positions, it will mark big political development. Even if they emerge victorious as deputies, this will open the way for them to compete for the major positions in the next election. This will certainly empower them.

The constitution has given many rights and powers to the local government. Even a ward chief is powerful. I urge the female leaders not to snub it if the parties refuse to field them for the top post. If the women candidates were to head at least 33 per cent of the wards, this will be a significant achievement. The election of women to the post of vice-chair of the village councils and deputy mayor of municipalities is no mean feat.

 

The provision of reservation is to uplift the underprivileged groups. But it is perceived that the quota system has failed to bring qualitative change in politics. Do you think reservation is needed?

The reservation system is needed for the time being to give a new direction to Nepali politics. This will enable the women to participate equally in the political and social spheres. Effective affirmative actions are necessary to improve the condition of women across the political spectrum. The interim constitution 2007 had helped ensure at least 33 per cent proportional representation of women in the first Constituent Assembly. Although women’s representation dropped to 30 per cent in the second CA, the participation of women lawmakers was very meaningful. There is a shift from quantitative representation to qualitative one. Reservation is a must to bring social equity. This is a temporary provision and will be withdrawn once the targeted goals are achieved.

What are the challenges facing women candidates in the upcoming local poll?

Nepal is still a patriarchal society with women under-represented in every sphere of life.

Maintaining gender balance in the decision-making process is the major challenge in increasing the number of women candidates and ensuring their victory. Compared to the male candidates, women contestants face multiple challenges in terms of resource management, family and institutional support. The people still find it difficult to accept women leadership. Besides, women are unable to spare enough time for the election campaign. They have to play a double role. On the one hand, they have to demonstrate masculine leadership qualities, while on the other, they must show feminine personality that the stereotyped society demands. Still there is no certainty of electing 50 per cent women in the local units. There could be men in both posts - mayor and deputy mayors. Another scenario is also likely. The voters may elect a man to the post of mayor from one party and another male to deputy mayor from another party.

 

Why is the women’s participation in the local government necessary?

Women participation in local government is crucial for the overall development of the state and to empower women politically and socially. The major foundation of democracy is local government. The more powerful the local government is, the stronger democracy will be. No local government can be complete without women’s participation. Women’s participation in the local government will make it comprehensive. It is a proven fact that corruption will be controlled under women’s leadership. I am not saying that all women are good but compared to men, women are less likely to be involved in corruption. Women’s presence in the local bodies will help reduce violation against women. I believe that women’s participation is a must for political refinement. The country has been passing through a political deadlock. If the women occupy major positions of the nation, the political stalemate will be resolved because women are more organised than men. Based on my observation, I can say that any organization, or government body, led by women, is more organised and systematic.  Hence, women’s representation is needed to break the stereotype that politics is man’s domain.

The ability of women is often questioned before assigning any responsibility to them. As the election is nearing, the male leaders are also creating public opinion against female leaders by pointing to their capability. How do you see this issue?

This is not surprising. Our entire political system is male-dominated. To fail women, the male leaders will keep questioning their ability and even their character. We must be prepared to end such charges against women. There are many incapable male leaders, but this is hardly pointed out. A woman has to work twice as hard as her male counterpart to prove her mettle. This applies to politics as well. I feel that to prove myself, I have to work twice as hard as men and be more honest than them. Then only my contribution will be recognised.

You represent Madhes, too. The Madhesi leaders have been accusing the UML of being anti-Madhesis. What is your take on it?

 

The UML can never be anti-Madhes as it was born in Madhes. It is the bastion of the party. Without the UML, Madhes cannot be imagined. The UML remains incomplete without Madhes, and the country is incomplete without Madhes. I don’t understand why the blame game has become a ritual in politics all over the world.  The party might have some flaws, but this accusation is baseless and misleading. The UML always stands for the well-being of the Madhesi people. 

The cadres of the Madhes-based parties disrupted the mass meetings of the UML under the ‘Mechi Mahakali Campaign. How do you see the politics of negation adopted by the Madhesi-based forces?

The politics of negation is unacceptable in a democracy. Every party has the right to go to the people as per its manifesto. A person who is involved in politics should be guided by two values. First, he or she should have a political principle, and second accept elections.

Madesh-based parties have been claiming that the constitution discriminates against Madhesis. Do you agree with this?

It might have some flaws, but I don’t think the new constitution has discriminated them.

How progressive is your party when it comes to empowering women compared to the Madhes-based parties?

Compared to other parties, our party is more progressive when it comes to empowering women. We cannot compare the UML with the Madhesi parties because the UML is a national party, while the Madhesi parties are emerging ones. The UML has trained many women leaders for many years. Still we have a long way go to achieving our targeted goal.

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