April 7, 2013
Ram Kumari Jhakri rewrote the history of Nepali politics by becoming the first woman president of any student organization in the country. It was not an easy victory. She grew up in a poor family in a remote rural village, determined to enter politics and to fight discrimination in Nepal. Hard work paid off. She moved to the capital and quickly caught the attention of other youth leaders. In 2004, during a demonstration in front of the King’s palace, she was beaten by security; her wounds were captured on film and the following picture became iconic:
In 2008, she became President of All Nepal National Free Student Union (ANNFSU), the student wing of the Communist Party of Nepal – United Marxist-Leninist, (CPN-UML). Prior to that she was the most recognizable female leader of Jana Andolan II, otherwise known as the 19-Day Revolution, which marked the end of King Gyanendra’s dictatorship and, eventually, the abolishment of the 250-year-old monarchy. In 2008, national elections were held, resulting in a 601 members of a Constituent Assembly, tasked with the drafting of a new constitution for what now was the Republic of Nepal. During all of these dramatic changes in Nepali politics, Ram Kumari remained known and continues to stand out as a force for social change.
DUNHAM: The Constituent Assembly (CA) is now disbanded. But during its four-year run, one thing that distinguished it was the fact that 33% of the members were women. That was a first in Nepali politics. How would you describe the performance of the women in the CA?
JHAKRI: Given the composition of Nepali society, one-third representation in parliament – just suddenly, 33% of parliament made up of women – this is a great achievement. We had a common understanding, among the population, not to focus on the quality of these representatives but, instead, to welcome the inclusive nature of the parliament – inclusive of women from all walks of life, thus reflecting the true social structure of Nepal.
DUNHAM: During the four years of the CA, what were you doing?
JHAKRI: I was active in the Student Front [ANNFSU, at that time. I had no official role in the constitution-writing process, but as a political cadre, I was publicly involved in various discussions about the constitution. Since the whole process has collapsed, what we discussed during that period, in my view, is no longer relevant.
The achievement of the April 2006 revolution achieved many things. It brought the rebels into mainstream politics and the CA was established, which was inclusive and reflected the true map of Nepal. Since then, on the one had, overall, the CA was a failure because it did not bring the end result. But on the other hand, it was a valuable learning process for all the representatives, including those who came from underprivileged society and who had not had previous exposure to policy-making.
DUNHAM: But as I understand it, the majority of the constitution-writing process was completed before the collapse of the CA. Could not that be considered a partial success? All the data that was collected, all of that work produced something, right? It won’t just be thrown out the window, surely.
JHAKRI: I think that will depend on the political consensus among the various political parties. It will also depend on the composition of the next CA, if and when the next election takes place.
What will be the political positions in that CA? For example, in the previous election, the UCPN-Maoists were the largest party. Nepali Congress was the second largest. UML was the third and the Madhesi parties held the fourth position. I believe the composition after the next election will be different. So the question is: After the next election, will the new CA adopt, partially adopt or discard entirely the previous work entailed in the constitution-writing process. The next elected members of the CA may not choose to take ownership of what was drafted and agreed upon by the previous CA. It will depend on many things: how federalism will be defined and what each party’s position will look like. Should we have a president, a prime minister—what kind of government do we want? There is also the issue of the judicial system.
So in regard to the past CA’s drafts, etc., the next CA may only use that work as reference material.
The Maoists dominated the last CA, but after the next election, a different party might prevail. A different coalition may emerge.
DUNHAM: So all of that work, that collected data could be thrown out by the next CA?
JHAKRI: The true representation of the people is reflective by the election results. The elected parliamentarians opinions is superior to any collected data. The next CA may decide to re-collect data and the analysis of that data may be quite different. For example, federalism was a very powerful agenda in the last election. But it may be less important in the next election, even though the parties can’t back off from the issue. The Madhesi parties still regard federalism as the most important issues. But the other parties may be less interested. Right now, the UCPN-Maoists is paying lip service to the question of federalism. But the UML and NC have lost interest in the issue of federalism.
We will have a federal state, but the question remains: What kind of federalism will that be?
DUNHAM: You are not only a youth leader in your party, the UML, but you are woman leader as well. In the upcoming elections, will you be emphasizing women’s issues?
JHAKRI: Since I’m affiliated with a political party, I’ll be campaigning along the party line. But, even though I’m a political cadre, as a woman and as a youth leader, I will definitely be focusing on women’s issues. Youth issues will also be my priority, especially how to bridge the generation gap. Bridging the generation gap and women’s issues are common concerns for all youth leaders in all the parties.
DUNHAM: In the next election, there will be a lot of young women able to vote for the first time. I would think that it is only natural that these young women will be looking at you as one of their role models. You have been such a high-profile woman, not only during the Jana Andolan II, but even before that…I’m thinking of in 2004, when you were beaten in front of the King’s palace, and that photograph of your bloodied face was very widely circulated. And from that time forward, you have set an example for women who are interested in the political arena and want to work for social change.
JHAKRI: Yes, I do feel a certain responsibility to set a good example for younger women.
During Jana Andolan II, we, youth envisioned a certain kind of new and prosperous Nepal, the Republic of Nepal, realized through a political process. But now, we should focus on utilizing politics for better planning, management and production. Instead of dreaming about the future, it’s time to make the dream a reality. As a woman, twenty years ago, I only dreamt about social and political change. But now, it is time to achieve these dreams by utilizing the political process. The women who have just turned eighteen and will be voting for the first time in the next election, I would suggest to them to stop dreaming. It’s time to act.
DUNHAM: If an eighteen-year-old woman came up to you right now and said, “I want to emulate what you have done – to rise up through the political world. How best can I do that? What is your advice?” How would you respond to her?
JHAKRI: Political parties in a democracy are very important. Politics is about teamwork, based on ideology and philosophy.
First of all, I would suggest that the young woman should define for herself what her personal ideology and philosophy are, and which political party best conforms to her ideas. To have an impact on society, she needs to become affiliated with one party or another. She can’t make an impact on her own or win office in an election. To have political validity, she needs wide public support and that will come through the teamwork of a political party.
Secondly, whatever political party she chooses, she must stop dreaming and implementing her political ideology. She needs a concrete plan as to how to achieve her political ambition, while effecting social change at the same time.
When I started my political career, I envisioned change but had no idea when it would take place. Now, I realize that envisioning is not enough. I’m not going to live to be 200 years old. If I don’t act now, it will be too late. I want to see the change in my lifetime. People have talked about democracy, democracy, democracy for half a century now. The current practice of democracy, and the space it has provided for the transformation of our society, is enough to realize our dreams if we remain focused and faithful.
To those up-and-coming women and all women, in general, I would request that they focus on economic development and social transformation. That is what I am trying to do and that is what I hope they will do.
DUNHAM: Let’s switch from politics to your personal life. You are now the proud mother of a fourteen-month-old and healthy son. This is a new experience for you…new territory. How does your experience of motherhood differ from your own mother’s experience, many years ago? In your opinion, is it easier to be a mother now than it was, say, three decades ago?
JHAKRI: Definitely, there has been significant change from thirty years ago. The society in which my mother lived and the one in which I now live are entirely different. I think that some of the old, traditional family values are better. For example, I live in a joined family of twenty people from my husband’s side. My inlaws, their brothers and sisters and their children – we share the same house and the same kitchen. I am the youngest daughter-in-law in that family and they have been enormously supportive and helpful in bringing up my son.
By contrast, people who are in nuclear families today, they have been able to break from the extended family tradition, but I think they are living a sad life. In Nepal, there are not many good day-care and child-care centers. I would be concerned about the well being of my son, if I didn’t have my extended family. For example, tonight, I would be concerned during this interview if I didn’t know my child was with my family.
If I had to bring my son with me to this interview, it would be very problematic. The roads getting here are too rough for a stroller. The air quality is very polluted. I wouldn’t want him breathing it.
In a rural environment, those living in traditional extended families have an easier time raising their children. However, in the rural areas, there are alarming concerns of lack of health facilities and poor nutrition. This is different than in the urban areas where facilities are available and nutrition is generally better.
I have not personally been a part of the urban nuclear family experience. I have always been part of an extended family. But the demographics of the young population – the dramatic shift from rural to urban – has made it increasingly difficult to preserve the best aspects of traditional family values. The nuclear family has provided freedom for the parents, but, in terms of the upbringing of their children, they face different difficulties because of a lack of extended family support.
If we were a welfare state and had various facilities available to us, the nuclear family would not be as difficult. But the state does not provide any support. Everything has to be taken care of by the parents and/or other family members.
Basically, my family’s support makes it possible for me to continue my career. The only thing that only I can and must do is breastfeed. Everything else, my family can take care of.
DUNHAM: Regarding your career, though, have you met work-related obstacles?
JHAKRI: When I had my child, I couldn’t continue my work for almost a year. It is very hard in this society to have a child and a career at the same time. Even in my political party, I’m almost like “on leave”. When, eventually, I return fulltime, I will have to start from zero, from a different place -- whatever achievement I have had in the past. It’s hard to make up for lost time. Even in my party, which also reflects society-at-large, does not have a friendly attitude for a childbearing mother in the workplace.
Let me give you one example that was a bitter experience for me. Around June-July of last year – my child was just six months old – I was attending a party meeting and they were discussing giving me additional responsibilities. They told me, “Either you have to leave the child behind, or be satisfied with limited responsibilities.” I high-level party leader told me that.
When I wrote about that incident on facebook, many of my friends consoled me by saying, “That is an example of masculine hegemony. Don’t be discouraged. Stand up and fight. You have our support.”
For my interview with Ram Kumari Jhakri (and other youth leaders)in 2007,
For my interview with Ram Kumari on political instability in 2011,