The 2017 local elections marked a historic moment for women’s inclusion in the politics of Nepal, with 40% of women voted in the local governments. The number shows a promising development for women in the sphere of politics, however, the active participation of women in the political processes requires more attention. 51% of the total population of Nepal constitute women but this number is not reflected on the list of women registered voters. In the 2017 elections, the percentage of women voters summed up to 49%, which was outnumbered by 51% of men voters. Although the gap between the number of women voters to the number of men voters is minute, there are no statistics provided by the Election Commission of Nepal (ECN) to prove the actual number of female voter’s turnout ratio.
Women line up to cast votes in 2017 local body elections. Source: Asia Foundation
The given data indicates numerous possibilities that preclude women from casting votes. Little to no political awareness in the circles of women is sighted to be one of the reasons. Like any other patriarchal society, Nepal is no exception when it comes to ascribing men to the domain of politics. This essentially inhibits the involvement of women in politics. According to Sociologist Chaitanya Mishra, women in the villages are influenced by their husbands to cast their votes. It reaffirms the theory that women are not given the freedom to apply their independent thinking, limiting their role in decision making. Hence, it cannot be said with certainty that women are freely exercising their right to vote. Additionally, women’s rights activists opine that women are unable to take part in the elections as they do not have their citizenship certificate, without which voter’s card cannot be obtained.
Role of Election Commission of Nepal (ECN)
The ECN of Nepal is responsible for increasing the participation of women into politics—especially when it comes to increasing the percentage of women voters. The ECN has made efforts by developing voter education materials and providing voter education. The information is disseminated via radio jingles, posters, face-to-face training sessions, street drama, TV spots and TV interviews. A wide array of information channels ensure information reaches the voters regardless of their economic background.
In 2010, the ECN sought to increase women’s voter registration. They carried out a pilot project in five districts intending to populate the voters’ list. Fast track desks were set up for individuals to apply for their citizenship certificates, which was required to obtain the voter’s card. The pilot project had over 35000 voters registered, out of which, 47.3% were women.
After the success of the pilot project, a nation-wide voter registration programme was initiated and assigned to the enumerators. The goal was to achieve 50% women as enumerators, such that women’s participation in the voter registration drive increased. It is equally important to ensure gender equality within the working staff at the ECN to encourage women’s participation in the political process. The limited presence of women polling and security officers discourages women, voters and candidates, from reporting gender-based violence; and their overall involvement in the election process.
The representation of women in ECN was negligible in 2012—ECN had one woman, Usha Nepal, elected as the election commissioner. Besides, only 4% of the election offices in 75 districts were headed by women. The low number of women personnel in the ECN could be because of the low number (12%) of women as civil servants. Nonetheless, the trend shows an increase in women participation in civil service from 11% in 2008 to 20% in 2017. We can see a hike in the number of women’s participation in civil service, yet the presence of women in decision-making power is abysmal.
Reappraisal of voting rights
The Government of Nepal Act, 1947 ensures voting rights for women. It is time women start reappraising the power they hold while casting votes. Constituting 51% of the population, women hold the power to the discourse of politics. And they can exercise their rights by casting votes for the candidates that represent their interest.
It is essential to emphasise on the need to maintain the secrecy of the votes cast by the voters. In this way, it is reassuring for individuals to cast their votes without external pressure or fear. It is also to restore the independent decision-making power within the voters; especially for women who are subjected to pressure into voting for candidates, they don’t vouch for.
Political awareness among women voters is relatively low. Moreover, the literacy rate of women in Nepal is a mere 44.5%. Naturally, generating political awareness of the female population is a massive challenge yet the most significant factor in increasing the voter turnout. Engendering political consciousness among women becomes vital in increasing the participation of women in the political process substantially. Hence, with the low literacy rate of women, the ECN needs to emphasize programmes that inform women about politics and guide them through the political process to increase the overall participation of women in politics.
To conclude, the voters' turnout in 2017 was over 65%. Out of 49% of women registered voters, the ECN fails to provide data on total voter turnout by sex. Without revealing this data, it is challenging to follow the trends of women participation and inclusion in the political process. Moreover, due to voter absenteeism, women casting their votes for the elections will naturally be lower than anticipated. It is safe to say that the number of registered voters does not give a clear picture of the active political participation of women. Overall, the ECN needs to be held accountable to provide data on voter turnout by sex alongside women-friendly policies that encourage women to get employed at the ECN. Even though the political participation of women in Nepal has reached a new milestone, a need for their active involvement in the political process—the elections must be realized and given utmost importance for the next local elections in 2022.
Bimita GC, Advocate, Women for Politics
Bimita recently graduated with a BA in Political Science, Sociology and Economics from Christ (DTB) University. Her interests lie in International Development, Public Policy and Gender studies. Presently, She is working as a collaborator at Political Literacy for women (PLfW).
She can be reached on LinkedIn here