DISPATCHES FROM THE FIELD

 

Nepal 's legislature: Setting the gold standard on inclusion of minorities

Women in Nepal have for the first time taken a central role in the country's political process, following the historic election for a Constituent Assembly in April. With nearly 200 seats in the new Assembly, women make up 33 per cent of elected representatives. This immediately shoots Nepal to 14 th place in the worldwide league table of women's representation in national elected bodies, and well above the South Asian average of 17 per cent.

Diversity is a new feature of Nepal 's political landscape. Ian Martin, who leads the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), describes the new Assembly “as Nepal 's most representative elected body to date.” As the country went to the polls in April, the historic ballot involved about 10,000 candidates and more than 234,000 election workers to supervise the entire operation along with hundreds of international electoral observers. UNMIN was instrumental in supporting the electoral process and in trouble-shooting when obstacles arose that threatened the orderly holding of elections.

Achieving this historic level of representation was not easy. Traditionally marginalised groups raised protests throughout 2007, calling for a more inclusive peace process and greater representation through the electoral process. Protests in the southern plains, known as the Terai, threatened to obstruct the election as late as February 2008, before a compromise was reached.

“The fact that more than 50 per cent women participated in this election proves that everyone is looking for change,” says Anuradha Koirala, a woman civil society leader. “Women cannot just sign on to a constitution written entirely by men. Our voice must be heard.”

Taking their seats alongside women are Dalits, the lowest caste often referred to as untouchables, Kamaiyas (former bonded labourers), as well as members of other minorities such as indigenous Tharus from the remote far western region. Madhesis, of the southern plains, have greater representation than ever before. And Sunil Pant is Nepal 's first openly gay member of a nationally elected legislature.

“ The new government and the Constituent Assembly will face continuingly high expectations,” Ian Martin cautions on the need to deliver on past commitments to traditionally marginalised communities. “Groups that have been marginalised are looking not only to the Assembly but to increasing their representation in all the structures of the State, the civil service and the security forces. If those expectations are not met then there are dangers of continuing protests.”

With the election successfully completed and the Constituent Assembly convened, UNMIN's presence has been significantly reduced. But the peace process is not over. “It is still a struggle to complete this democratic transition,” says Sunil Pant. “But the people of Nepal 's many and diverse backgrounds will be part of this process, and part of Nepal 's political life from now on.”