Updated: April 03, 2018 04:56 AM GMT
Nepali women shout slogans during a rally marking the 108th observance of International Women's Day in Kathmandu on March 8. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)
Nepalese women have a long road to travel before they enjoy equal rights despite having a female president and recent efforts by the government to bolster their inclusion in all spheres of life, including politics, through the introduction of quotas.
While people around the world feted International Women's Day last last month, Nepalese teenager Radha Chaudhary was accused of being a witch in a village where tribal law still prevails.
She had to endure five hours of physical torture in public at the hands of both sexes. The 18-year-old was one of four women subjected to the same fate that day.
The same group of perpetrators at Chaudhary village in Western Nepal has reportedly carried out this cruel form of "justice" on dozens of women and young girls in recent months.
They are part of a tribal group that wields much influence in Nepal's Terai belt, a lowland region in the south of the country.
However, their actions run counter to the constitution with Article 38 (3) strictly prohibiting violence against women in any cultural practices.
Last year, the government developed new legislation and policies against harmful social traditions like chhaupadi, sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women. Chhaupadi is a controversial practice as it bans women from joining in normal family activities when they are menstruating. In some cases, they are forced to live with animals outside of their home until their period ends.
With brutality and violence against women in urban and rural areas still prevalent, this sends a message to society that they are not regarded as being equal to men.
Worse still, women who have managed to climb into powerful positions are complicit in this sorry state of affairs, with many cases of them exploiting other members of their sex having surfaced in recent times.
The Informal Sector Service Centre published a report in 2017 that recorded 3,560 cases of violence against women, including rape and human trafficking.
What is so concerning about this is that it represents a significant increase from a year earlier, when 2,910 such cases were reported.
Nepal held local, provincial (state assembly) and federal parliament elections last year, but women's participation was woefully low.
Saying that, women have made noticeable advances over the last few years: In addition to President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, the country's chief justice and speaker at parliament are also women.
Women outnumber men in Nepal. In light of this, Article 84 (8) in the charter now mandates that they be granted one-third of all parliamentary seats.
However, in last year's local elections they only secured six out of 165 seats at the House of Representatives.
They also fare badly at constitutional assembly elections despite gaining traction at these since 1999, when women only made up 5.8 percent of the elected members.
Nepali Buddhist nuns perform kung fu at the Amitabha Drukpa Nunnery during International Women's Day on the outskirts of Kathmandu on March 8. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)
That number jumped to 32.8 percent in 2008 but backtracked to 28.6 percent in 2013, when women secured 172 of 601 seats.
To ensure the quota of 33 percent was met last year, parties nominated more female representatives under the country's system of proportional representation. The legislature now comprises 275 elected members.
But who are these women who are blazing a new trail in Nepalese politics?
As it turns out, most of the nominees were related to powerful political leaders or wealthy elites who wield vast influence in their respective territories.
What this means is that women at a grassroots level are not really being represented in politics, as only those fortunate few with distinct social advantages are able to make the jump and get their voices heard.
It is debatable whether the opinions of "lower-class" women are ever really reflected in the nation's decision-making process.
In the first-ever provincial-level election in Nepal, only 18 women were elected to fill 550 available seats.
Parties again skirted the "33 percent rule" by exploiting loopholes in the — ironically named — proportional representation system.
Meanwhile, during last year's local elections, women occupied 37 percent of the slots available for village officials.
Empowering women and girls means more than simply helping them to escape from this vicious cycle of physical and sexual violence.
They also deserve greater economic independence and equal opportunities for women leadership at all levels of decision-making.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the literacy rate of women stood at 65.9 percent in 2011, an improvement from earlier times. Yet finding work other than as a homemaker remains incredibly challenging.
Women's participation in Nepal's civil service is also nominal at best.
Even though the civil service law has mapped out a 45 percent quota to encourage their greater participation, records from 2014 showed the true figure to be less than 10 percent.
Moreover, their roles in these sectors are limited and very few climb to positions of influence.
Women's participation in politics can serve as a litmus test for their empowerment, and their participation in bureaucracy can be an indicator of gender equality.
In other words, the degree to which they are included reflects how strong democracy is in Nepal.
In terms of female representation in parliament, the country ranked 48th on a list of 193 nations in 2017, according to a report prepared by the group Women in Politics.
The same group ranked Nepal a lowly 169th in terms of how many women hold ministerial positions.
Made in God's image
As the Bible teaches us, God created both man and woman in His own image. The two should not be considered as belonging to two different social classes, as both were bestowed with equal inherent dignity.
As such, my faith encourages me to pray for the equal participation of women in all fields.
And, fortunately, there are signs things may be changing as more women in urban areas stand up to make their voices heard and defend women's rights.
Another welcome measure is the introduction of a federal governance system in Nepal, as this heralds their greater inclusion in politics.
Reducing the disparities between men and women and overcoming rigid mindsets that exalt patriarchal norms is the first step to building a just society, one that sees power shared fairly between the sexes.
But one can only guess how long that will take.
Until then, we can but dream of the day women are no longer intimidated by shame or silenced by threats, and do whatever we can to support measures to empower our bold and beautiful Nepalese women.
Prakash Khadka is a peace and human rights activist as well as the Nepal representative of Pax Romana, the international Catholic movement for intellectual and cultural affairs.
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