Women played a major role in Nepal's 'Rhododendron Revolution' (named after the ubiquitous rhododendron - to signify the bloodless revolution), the continuous 19-day street protests in April 2006 that forced King Gyanendra to surrender the absolute power he had seized through a bloodless coup last year. But after restoration of democracy, women find themselves out in the cold - excluded from all decision-making processes. So, they continue to protest.
Vidya Bhandari, 46, senior member of the powerful Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), pushed for and recently got Parliament approval for two controversial rights - 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and citizenship on the basis of the mother's nationality. Having demonstrated the difference that women can make to politics, Bhandari says that women will continue to protest until they get at least one-third representation in the political process.
Q. Why are women still protesting on the streets after restoration of democracy in Nepal?
A. Where are the women in this - supposedly inclusive - democracy? It was the overwhelming participation of women that made the anti-king protests successful. During the 'people's movement' in April, women comprised 45 to 70 per cent of the protestors. In remote districts like Dang and Chitwan, and towns like Pokhara, there were all-women rallies with 10,000 to 50,000 women.
But this government - formed through womanpower - has given no representation to women. There is just one woman minister in a Cabinet of 20 ministers. There are no women in the six-member committee formed to draft an interim Constitution. There are no women in the teams formed by either the government or the Maoists to hold peace negotiations. In a country where women comprise 52 per cent of the population, this means repression of the majority by the minority.
Q. So, what are women's demands?
A. The government and the Maoists have agreed to hold a Constituent Assembly election in which people will decide if they want monarchy or a republic. We want proportional representation in the Constituent Assembly on the basis of population. This is imperative because, if you look at the current Constitution, you will see it has several provisions that go against women and violate the fundamental right to equality. That is because the Constitution of 1990 was written without the participation of women. That should not recur.
We also want 33 per cent reservation for women in all government sectors. This is not a new demand. Nine years ago, when the All-Nepal Women's Association (the women's wing of her party) held its fourth national convention, we agreed on this goal and have been lobbying for it. Nepal is a feudal society where women are treated as second-class citizens. To change this, there need to be special efforts towards women's education, health and employment. And to this end, we need the presence of women in the local development organisations, Parliament and, finally, the Constituent Assembly itself.
In theory, even men recognise this, and on May 30, Parliament unanimously approved 33 per cent reservation for women. But the approval has to be put into practice.
Q. How would you ensure that?
A. The women's wings of the major parties are unanimous about minimum representation for women. We have been pressuring our own parties, Parliament and the ministries to ensure this, as also to annul discriminatory laws. After Parliament approved 33 per cent reservation, we have been pressuring the Ministry of Law and the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare to introduce new laws, with a focus on education, health services and employment opportunities.
Q. On the day Parliament agreed to reservation for women, you demanded a controversial right - citizenship on the basis of the mother's nationality - and got it approved.
A. Let us first examine what I demanded and got. According to Nepal's Constitution, a child is considered a Nepali citizen only if the father is a citizen. The implication is that though women are citizens, they are inferior. In effect then, women have no presence anywhere. To end that discrimination, I asked the House to allow a child to get citizenship if the mother was a Nepali citizen and it was unanimously approved.
The controversy comes from a different issue. In the Terai belts in the south, for example, there are hundreds of mixed marriages (between Indians and Nepalis), and there is some fear that a small country like Nepal may be swamped with children who have one Indian parent.
But look at what the denial of citizenship on the basis of mother's nationality is doing to Nepal itself. In mid-western Nepal, for example, you have the Badi community, in which families have worked as sex workers for generations. So, you have hundreds of children born to Badi women. These children do not know who their fathers are and are, therefore, doomed to be stateless through no fault of their own.
Then there are the children born to rape victims, unwanted children, children whose mothers have been abandoned. These are all Nepali citizens and have the right to be recognised as such. The absence of a citizenship certificate affects almost everything - education, employment, voting rights, not to mention social status.
Q. The parties and the Maoists say that though they too want women to be represented, it cannot be done due to the lack of qualified women...
A. That claim is just not true. There are enough educated and qualified women in Nepal. The fact is that our leaders want weak women who cannot survive without a prop, and are thus beholden for the support extended to them. And the problem is that our leaders do not like strong women who reject patronage and demand their rights.