The 2022 local elections have been a good practice and celebration of democracy, but lest we forget; our country has lagged behind 20 years in the growth of grassroots democracy due to the Maoist insurgency. Local governance came to a standstill until 2017. The local elections were first held post the 1990 democratic revolution in 1992, 1997 and then only in 2017 after a two-decade gap. During this chaotic political phase, what we lost is unaccountable; maybe we could have achieved certain parameters of development earlier had the process continued. Nevertheless, the country now is forging ahead with renewed vigor with more women and youth in power.
Flashback to 2000, Simikot, Humla. Talk of local government and decentralisation was pervasive all over the country as one out of every five seats were reserved for women at the ward level among 36,000 people elected. I was on my first job assignment for research on the status of the elected women ward representatives.
Simikot was a shocker for a Kathmandu city girl who was first time out in west Nepal. While the natural landscape was heavenly, the village was beyond medieval with disheveled men walking around half drunk and children running around with snot which was literally encrusted on their noses. A man who had a centimeter thick of dirt and soot plastered in his hands made my first cup of tea. The black layer of soot was like part of his skin. His hair was uncombed and sticky with dust. I still vividly remember with much restraint, how I barely managed to take a few sips for the sake of acting like a good guest.
You could hear the roaring sounds of the mighty Karnali flowing right below but people just didn’t have the habit of cleaning themselves. I wondered whether they would understand any matters of local governance. They were more in need of awareness on personal hygiene and cleanliness.
I had prepared a long questionnaire in Kathmandu, thinking the village women would by now have some kind of political awareness. But looking at their frazzled and wearied faces; and seeing them pant up and down with heavy firewood and fodder, I wondered how the hell I was going to get any answers out of them. They were simply living a hand to mouth existence. What would local government mean to them?
The poor women who had been nominated as ward representatives didn’t even know what their position was. Most of them just smiled and hid their faces saying “My husband just told me to be a part of this. I just do whatever he tells me to do. I don’t have time to do all these things. Who is going to look after the house if I sit in meetings where I don’t even understand what the men are talking about?”
Our team went from one village to other carrying group discussions on the importance of being women ward representatives. Everywhere it was the same, they were all token representatives just to fill a vacant reservation seat – wives, sisters or daughters of the ward chiefs. Wizened old women with strong creases on their forehead and deep soulful eyes, young girls already defying their age due to the immense work burden and the lost hollow look of married women all gave me the signs that these women could not think beyond their daily duties.
One day, after my umpteenth attempts on asking them what they could do being a woman ward representative, finally one woman gave a long-drawn sigh and said why can’t we work to build a nice “chaupadi” if the government is going to give us money to spend at the ward level? (Chaupadi, a shed where women are kept during their menstrual cycle and in some places even after childbirth). In the name of religious purity women are made to stay in unhygienic conditions leading to terrible reproductive health problems.
An idea germinated in all of us to propose to the Ward and District Development Committee to build a brick and cemented “chaupadi” for women. With the budget allocated by the government and the funds of the organisation that contracted us to carry out the research, a joint model project was worked on. After days of getting blank looks, this sudden idea proposed by a simple Humli woman shook us up. The District Chief also needed to show some work after three years of being elected, so it was surprising that within six months a concrete chaupadi was built.
I was part of a team that helped build a chaupadi in the early days of local governance in the country but till today, women still practice this custom though it has been legally banned. Many cases of death have been reported over the years due to snake bites in the sheds and other health hazards. Having immediate access to sanitary pads is still a distant dream for many rural women, but looking at the bright side, awareness of menstrual stigma and necessary hygiene has really improved over the years.
Democracy flourishes when it germinates from the grassroots with day-to-day issues of the people being addressed. If the local government institutions had not been obstructed for 20 years, we could have progressed in many arenas of women’s development. Nevertheless, at present, more women are getting opportunities to participate in politics as currently two out of five seats are reserved for women, one from backward caste category and one just for women. Though many women in villages continue to be token representatives as their male counterparts fill in the names of their own family members, we see the rise of many politically strong women too. The number of women elected/nominated in 2022 was 14,378 from 34,888 positions. However, it’s not merely the numbers that make impactful changes – it’s the continuous growth of empowered elected women within democratic processes.
Social change takes generations and political intervention makes a big difference in making it happen. Political changes bring hope for a new dawn as ideas spring in the simplest of minds, the once upon a time token representative becomes an empowered voice for the greater good. In this lies the beauty of women’s story in politics, the soft voices slowly become louder and stronger.