May 5, 2011
“Nepalis are very proud of our current quota of women in the Constituent Assembly – one -third of the members are women. But now, looking back, we have to ask, “What have these elected women achieved on behalf of women’s rights?”
Of all the young political leaders that have emerged in Nepal in the last ten years, Ram Kumari Jhakri has become the most prominent women in the youth movement. From 2008-2010, she was the National President of All Nepal National Free Students Union (ANNFSU), the sister ally of Nepal Communist Party (United Marxist Leninist-UML). Today, she remains active in UML and extremely popular among the younger activists who are politically committed to Nepal's future.
DUNHAM: The last time we talked was in 2007. Since then, there seems to be some progress with women’s issues. We sometimes here about these things in the Western press. Anurada Koirala’s winning of CNN Hero of the Year 2011 for her work in anti-trafficking in Nepal is the best-known example. Her achievements illustrated that women were doing something for other women in Nepal. But on the other hand, sex trafficking is about the only woman’s issue that the Western press is covering. Women’s health issues, for example, are far less covered. If you were given the opportunity to talk to women in America, how would you describe what’s going on here in terms of women’s rights?
JHAKRI: Mikel, it’s a very interesting question. I could talk about this for a long time because I am a Nepali woman and it’s my story. I consider myself to be a woman who is fortunate, who has been offered opportunities.
Women who have opportunities in Nepal experience one reality, but there are many many more women in Nepal who do not experience opportunities – their reality is entirely different – and many books could be written about that!
Groups here in Nepal who talk about women’s rights – the groups who get all the media coverage and meet in five-star hotels – they and the issues that they discuss are all very superficial. If women’s issues are not covered in depth here, then how can the international media and community be expected to cover them? But in reality, the majority of Nepali women, who are living such problematic lives – they are simply not talked about.
Nepali women are deprived of every opportunity. Before you can have a dream, you have to know what to know that it is OK to dream…or know what is possible to dream for. Most Nepali women do not have big dreams.
Anurada [Koirala] became the CNN Hero of the Year 2011. I voted for her on-line and I congratulate her for her achievement. But only women at my level [of opportunity and access to contemporary media] know about Anurada’s success. Many Nepali women have no idea who Anurada Koirala is. They don’t know anything about CNN or awards. The only Nepali women who know that CNN exists are those who are in the privileged position of being part of social networking, like Tweeter and facebook – those who live in urban areas where internet facilities are available. So I am proud of Anurada’s achievements, particularly since she was born and raised without privilege – she has a history of being a victim, herself, of domestic violence – and yet now she works for the same community – those women who have been victimized.
On the other hand, most women-rights activists [in NGOs] don’t understand the real problems of women in Nepal. Women’s rights and related problems are simply being used by these groups, who write reports for their main office and make proposals [to donors].
Women-related issues are not mainstream in Nepal, nor are they being prioritized within the political parties. The politicians talk about bringing women up to the policy-making level, but who do they bring up to that level? Not the uneducated ones, not those who are unable to express themselves, not those who are ignorant. Inclusion is benefiting only those who already have access to opportunity.
The current political stage does not discuss the issues of safe motherhood, or women without basic nutrition, health care, safe natal care or any knowledge of a woman’s reproductive rights.
I have met women’s rights activists from European and Scandanavian countries. I have also met with former Secretary of State Madelaine Albright and I participated in an Ohian rally for Obama before he was elected.
Also, while in America, I participated in a workshop made up of many U.S. congresswomen. I noticed that none of these women prioritized or supported a quota system. In fact, a quote system wasn’t even on the agenda. I think that’s because these women were competitive in their own right and could hold their own with their male counterparts.
On the other hand, the situation in Nepal and other third world countries is different. In Nepal there are only a few women, who come from an educated and well-to-do class, who are already in positions of relative power. These women are using a quote system for their personal gain. This is the way they climb up the ladder of personal success. And what happens to these women when they reach the top of the ladder? They turn their back on the very women who they are supposed to be representing. They don’t speak a single word about downtrodden women.
Nepalis are very proud of our current quota of women in the Constituent Assembly – one -third of the members are women. But now, looking back, we have to ask, “What have these elected women achieved on behalf of women’s rights?” In fact, they haven’t done a single thing for the women who they were supposed to be representing. The only thing that is different is that they have “changed their color”. [This is a common Nepali phrased used to describe people who have gone from a hard life to a prosperous life including fancier clothes and better grooming.] First they were dusty and rusty, now they are fat and shiny! These elected members haven’t addressed women’s social security, education for girls, or the general improvement of the conditions of deprived women. They haven’t created or developed programs to improve the economic conditions of women.
The reason why women in Nepal are perpetually deprived is because they don’t have the means to be economically independent. What’s missing are policies and programs that will allow women to achieve an improved and empowered lifestyle – if not quickly, at least gradually. Economic independence brings confidence and access to education. Education leads to opportunities.
Why aren’t these women lawmakers doing the jobs that they were elected to do?
DUNHAM: If the women lawmakers aren’t doing their job, are there groups in Nepal that could effectively pressure the women in the CA to snap to it and get down to work?
JHAKRI: There are many pressure groups here in Nepal and I have a critical view of them. These organizations were established and are funded by donor agencies to encourage and empower women. But have their programs worked?
I don’t think so. Here’s an example. There are two organizations that are directly funded by the United Nations. One is the Janajati Mahasangh [pro-Janajati-rights organization], and the other is the Center for Constitutional Dialogue [CCD], which, among other things, organizes dialogues that are against the issues raised by Janajati Mahasangh. Does that make sense? The question for me is: What issues are the United Nations really supporting? The UN seems to be supporting organizations that are diametrically apposed to one another.
Bottom line: International donors are funding contradictory projects in Nepal. To me, that’s no different than offering funds to make a bomb, then offering funds to detonate the bomb, and finally funding the creation of a post-bombing reconstruction program!
These organizations are not effective. Their activities are superficial. They do not create programs based on ground reality. Instead, their programs are donor-centric and counter-productive.
DUNHAM: So they are all very busy doing nothing. Still, I know Nepali women who, on an individual basis, are doing great things here in Nepal – perhaps not known by the general public or the media, but nevertheless are making a difference on the ground level. Gita Upreti, for instance, who has risen through the ranks of the Nepal Police – against considerable odds – and who is now a Superintendent. She has helped pave the way for security forces, mostly male, to have a better understanding of how best to treat female victims of domestic violence. She has become a model for less-fortunate women to see how another woman can maneuver successfully in a man’s world.
JHAKRI: Yes, I know Gita Upreti. There are a few officers like Gita, who achieved their high ranks while competing with male police officers. There is no question about these women’s qualities and performances on the job. But, lately, because of the quota system that is in place here in Nepal—as we discussed before – the quality and performance of younger women coming to the police force has decreased. Compulsory quota of x number of women into the police force – arbitrary numbers – has taken its toll on overall quality.
And the attitude of these young women has changed as well. They feel entitled. The want privileges when it comes to geographical postings. In other words, they want to avoid the most dangerous regions. They also want to be treated with a certain amount of privilege during training, because they are women. We hear about similar problems in the civil servant sector.
Basically, many women are trying to take advantage of the quota system imposed by the government.
At the same time, women’s confidence has definitely risen when it comes to applying for the positions, and that is a positive aspect. If and when women become truly competitive and their quality of performance improves, it will not only empower, in general, but it will also help transform the entire society.
Unfortunately, another aspect of this discussion is that, recently, the question of identity – ethnic, Madhesi, Dalit, Magar, Rai – has sidelined the issue of access for women. Identity is important, but access to opportunity, justice and education is more important.
Take President Obama for example. He is a son of black man [identity] and yet managed to become president of the United States because he had access to education and opportunity. Why do we Nepalis maximize identity and minimize the importance of access?
DUNHAM: I’d like to change gears and talk to you about your Party, UML. Specifically, I’d like to talk about the apparent friction within the senior membership of the UML and younger members. Can you even talk about the UML in terms of unity?
JHAKRI: For a long time there have been differences of opinions within the party. Since the Maoists came to the peace process, the major disagreement within my party has been based on whether the Maoists are fully committed to and sincere about the peace process – whether they are for the peaceful transformation of Nepali society or not – whether they will support the democratization process or not – whether their main goal is to simply capture the seat of power or not. All the parties have engaged in differences of opinion about the Maoists’10-year violent conflict and, in terms of the future, whether or not they will address or alter the culture of violence that they helped to established in the past.
Some political parties justified the Maoist conflict on the grounds that it arose as result of social, economical, and gender inequality issues, which long existed in Nepali society. Other parties opposed the Maoists’ use of violence by saying that it was just an ultra-left ideology and, in a global 21st century context, war does not change society, but rather the implementation of democracy changes society. These are the two major differences of opinion that all the political parties have to grapple with. And the same disagreement exists within the members of the UML party.
But Mikel, there is no doubt about the UML’s unified commitment to be a part of the peaceful and democratic transformation of this society.
“People’s Multi-Party Democracy”, introduced by the late UML leader, Madan Bhandari, is the guiding principal of the UML and it emphasizes the principle of peaceful, democratic and progressive transformation. Everyone in the UML agrees with and supports this principle.
But members of the UML do have differing views on what are the best ways to cooperate with Nepali Congress as well as how to interpret the Maoists’ ideology and their activities.
DUNHAM: You mentioned the “People’s Multi-Party Democracy”. Tell me a little more about how the principle of the “People’s Multi-Party Democracy” came into being.
JHAKRI: Madan Bhandari introduced the principle after he had analyzed the disintegration of the USSR, and the resultant setbacks of numerous communist groups that did not achieve their goals and unsuccessful international armed-group attempts to seize and retain power, like the 72-day communist government in Peru. Bhandari’s analysis was based on a global context. He came to the conclusion that seizing power through violent means was not the only way to accomplish communist goals.
Violence can achieve power, but it is not possible to sustain power indefinitely through violence.
The idea behind the “People’s Multi-Party Democracy” is that successful social change should be based on an analysis of the current social context. In that way, progressive social transformation is achieved peacefully and democratically. Again, the UML is totally and uniformly committed to this policy.
DUNHAM: I would like to address the lack of confidence Nepali people have in the Constituent Assembly [CA], which is supposed to complete the new constitution by May 28. In recent weeks, two members of the CA were arrested for selling their diplomatic passports for a profit. This week, a CA member was arrested for stealing electricity from the grid close to her house. It’s well known that numerous Maoist CA members are illiterate. Are these the kind of people a nation should be assembling to write a constitution?
JHAKRI: Yes, it’s time to re-examine the people’s opinion of the CA and the Assembly’s questionable conduct. Nevertheless, we have no alternative but to keep the CA, at least for the time being.
If you remember, looking back at Nepal’s recent history, there was economic, social, gender-based and regional inequality in the society, which fueled the ten-year-long conflict. Because of the pre-existing inequality, the Maoists rose to the forefront of power and became part of the governmental system. The CA arose from that history.
We don’t have an alternative because the CA is our only democratically elected body. The CA is also a legislative parliament, which exercises the people’s sovereignty and supremacy by electing the members of the government. What do have to replace the CA? If we are to dismiss the CA, who will make the constitution and who will be responsible thereafter? If we are to dismiss the legislative parliament, how will the new government be formed on a democratic basis?
There are many questions and concerns about the CA members, especially about those who were nominated on the basis of proportional representation. This particular group lacks the necessary level of education and political awareness and education that are required to write a constitution.
Nevertheless, we don’t have, right now, at our disposal, an alternative that would meet the mandate of the people’s wishes, which were evidenced by the 2008 elections: to write a constitution, to form a democratic government, and to maintain a check-and-balance-system. The people should remain positive but they should also keep the pressure on the CA to meet their commitments.
DUNHAM: Are you optimistic? Do you think that the final draft of the constitution can be completed by May 28?
JHAKRI: No. It’s not possible to formulate a unanimous or two-third majority to support a new constitution within the stipulated deadline. Why? Because there are fundamental disagreements between parties – disagreements about what should and should not go into the constitution – disagreements that have not been resolved.