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NEPAL: Women activists demand to see new draft constitution

KATHMANDU, 8 August 2011 (IRIN) - Women’s rights groups in Nepal say they are being left out of negotiations at a critical time, weeks before the country’s Constituent Assembly (CA) is meant to agree on a new constitution.

“We need a constitution in time and we need a women-friendly constitution,” Bijaya Karishma, a programme officer for Sankalpa, a women's alliance campaigning for peace, justice and democracy, told IRIN. “We have the right to see a draft and are concerned that we have not.”

Women's rights advocates say they have the most to gain or lose with this constitution: they expect it will grant women rights to pass on citizenship to their children and to independently own property. They also hope it will mandate 50 percent female representation at all levels of government.

But these advocates, like the rest of the public, are still waiting to see the constitution’s draft. They say the release of the document is the first step to opening up the political process.

They will probably be kept in the dark well past 31 August - the third deadline since 2008 for the constitution’s completion - as certain political sticking points, like the reintegration of Maoist fighters into the army, remain unresolved.

Vigil

The lapsed deadline will bring more of the same for the women's rights advocates: long days spent holding vigil, as they call it, outside the national parliament building's gates.

“We have to be watchdogs. We have to help ensure that there is an end to this peace-building process,” said Rita Thapa, founder of Sankalpa.

On a humid Sunday afternoon, Karishma, of Sankalpa, paced under a grey tent, making room for the fruit vendors that were threatening the workspace she and her colleagues had carved out. Sankalpa - one of 11 women's rights groups that have protested daily outside the parliament for the past three months - was on shift today.

Down the road, inside the parliament's red brick walls, an equally engaged struggle was being waged between the marginalized 197 female representatives of the multi-party parliament or CA.

Lobbying secured women 33 percent representation in the 601-person CA, charged with writing the constitution, and at all levels of government - a jump from the 20 percent representation formerly allotted to women.

But deeply rooted patriarchal systems in this nation of 29 million still create hurdles for female CA members who routinely face attempted political manipulation and disrespect.

The recently introduced system of proportional representation led to the nomination of 167 female members. Some of them had no political experience and little or no formal education.


Photo: Amy Lieberman/IRIN
A Sankalpa worker passing out leaflets in Kathmandu
“We have women who had spent their lives inside their kitchens,” explained Saloni Singh, executive director of Didi Bahini, a women's empowerment organization. “Women who have never spoken Nepali are here. Women who could not read and write are here.”

Illiteracy

Intensive training sessions in literacy, computers and government helped bring these women mostly up to speed, but some female CA members are still vulnerable to negative influences of male colleagues, says Radha Gyawali, a seasoned politician and CA member of the Communist Party of Nepal and Unified Marxist and Leninist (CPN-UML).

Male CA members and the national media have publicly criticized female CA members for their illiteracy. But no one ever speaks out against some male CA members, who also started work unable to read or write, Gyawali says.

Gyawali turned down the position of state education minister in April after she learned Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khanal violated the interim constitution's terms of having 33 percent female representation at all sectors of government, including in his partially formed cabinet.

“Even with this representation guaranteed by the interim constitution, still we are fighting every day,” said Gyawali.

Sankalpa’s Thapa says she will continue to monitor the CA's progress closely as it tries to hammer out “huge issues”, like the reintegration of former Maoist fighters into the army.

More than 19,000 former fighters remain in cantonment camps in Nepal. The Maoist Party has assumed a strong role in the CA and most recently demonstrated its hold over national politics in a standoff with Prime Minister Khanal over the number of cabinet positions for its party members.

Khanal this week said he will resign by 13 August if there is no significant progress in the stalled peace process, which began following a 2006 ceasefire with Maoist fighters, ending a decade-long conflict which resulted in more than 13,000 dead.

al/ds/cb

Theme (s): Gender Issues, Governance,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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