Increasing the proportion of women in political decision-making has long been an admirable goal in peacebuilding and development.
However, new research from International Alert shows why we must move beyond quotas and start challenging the patriarchal gender norms that stand in the way of true equality and inclusion.
A numbers game
On the numbers alone, Nepal has been a leading example of gender-inclusive representation. The Comprehensive Peace Accord, which served as the foundational document for Nepal’s new constitution following a decade-long civil war, was based on the idea of inclusion. It promised to enact “an inclusive, democratic and progressive restructuring of the state… by ending discrimination based on class, caste, ethnicity, language, gender, culture, religion, and region”.
In line with the accord, quotas for the number of women were introduced for local and federal elections and party lists. On its own terms, this system has been relatively successful. More than 40% of local representatives elected in 2017 and 2022 were women. But on closer inspection it is clear that this has failed to translate into real progress for Nepali women.
Women from the elite upper castes benefit the most from the representation system, while women from groups that have been marginalised, such as Dalit, Janjati and other ethnic minority women, remain almost entirely unrepresented.
Men continue to dominate key positions in political parties and municipal government. Male political leaders often decide which women will benefit from the quota numbers game. This often means that women from male politicians’ families get opportunities at the expense of women from marginalised groups.
Women’s participation in political spaces is widely seen as insignificant and tokenistic. Women in politics are routinely depicted as inexperienced, unqualified and incapable of contributing to debates, other than on “women’s issues”.
Cultural norms in Nepalese society present many hurdles to women seeking or occupying political positions. Strict definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman remain in place. Women are widely expected to play a supportive domestic role and often struggle to find a position in masculine social and professional settings. The quota system in and of itself is not enough to fill the gender gaps and promote gender-inclusive representation. It must be accompanied by transparent and inclusive selection processes and steps to address the dominant patriarchal culture.
Many respondents to our research team spoke about facing backlash or social sanctions when challenging prescribed gender norms. The disciplining of women’s behaviour, from other women as well as from men, continues to play a part in maintaining the social and moral order. Many women adhere to the discriminatory values and behaviours that prevent their views being heard.
These entrenched patriarchal norms are some of the key root causes of gender inequality in Nepal. Without taking steps to address the cultural expectations of women in public life, it is no wonder that the new political institutions came to reflect patriarchal norms, regardless of quotas.
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Representation and protection
Women and girls, particularly from communities that are already marginalised, have been among the most overlooked in post-conflict justice and reconciliation work. Many women faced enormous social stigma and economic disempowerment after losing their husbands during the civil war. These vulnerabilities left them isolated and increased their risk of gender-based violence.
Nepal’s response to gender-based violence has been mixed. The government has established one-stop crisis centres and a national helpline, but these services suffer from a lack of awareness and poor implementation. Women who are marginalised are rarely able to access them, and there is an ongoing struggle between local and provincial governments around service provision.
For women’s needs to be met, women decision-makers need equal power to men, rather than simply matching them in number. Strict social expectations and limitations of behaviour need to be challenged, and comprehensive programmes are needed to empower women in leadership. The interests and aspirations of women from all communities need to be reflected, and their safety taken seriously.
An inclusive future
Patriarchal values are pervasive in Nepal’s political system, and discriminatory norms and behaviours need to be transformed. Gender quotas alone are failing to reflect women’s intersectionality with other underrepresented groups, including sexual minorities, people with disabilities and people from diverse marginalised backgrounds.
State institutions and political parties should support women’s ability to thrive in political spaces by encouraging their agency, amplifying their voices and making the candidate selection process more inclusive and transparent. This means providing technical training and development to shape legislation, creating gender-friendly working environments and ensuring that diverse groups of women and gender minorities have a stake in the process.
Women are more than just numbers. If political inclusion continues to rely on quotas alone, gender equality and sustainable peace will remain a distant prospect.