Dalit women representatives are being
excluded from decision making
More Dalit women representatives than ever before won seats in the local, provincial and federal legislative bodies during the latest elections. Yet some are trying to deny Dalit women their deserved glory by arguing that this was an undeserved victory, a gift of the quota system. Such claims overlook the sustained contribution of Dalit women to an inclusive form of democracy in Nepal.
A handful of inaccurate stereotypes obscure our understanding of Dalit women representatives: Their representation is a gift given to them by the political elite; they do not understand party politics because they lack formal education; they do not think critically or independently and thus need to be guided. These narratives, encouraged by the refusal of the ruling elite to accept Dalits as equals, are incorrect. Instead, here is how we should understand Dalit women representatives: The extraordinary indignities and the poverty Dalit women face in their everyday lives, together with their unique capacity to solve problems with limited resources, make their leadership invaluable for Nepal.
Dalit women martyrs
Over the decades, indignities and humiliations have encouraged Dalit women to combat Nepal's autocratic regimes. They made significant contributions to the Maoist insurgency and the People’s Movement. Maoist leader Tilak Pariyar, writing about the Dalit sacrifice saga, states that 1,104 Dalits were martyred during the 10-year 'people’s war'. According to Dalit Mukti Morcha, as many as a quarter of these martyrs were women. Therefore, it is incorrect to believe that the Dalit women’s representation in government today is a gift given to them by the political elite. It is instead an achievement of their long struggle.
While discussing Dalit women representatives, the narrative has been to ‘teach them’, but not to learn from them. It is suggested that Dalit women representatives cannot speak for themselves, or that Dalit women are not good at public speaking or even speaking in front of the political party they belong to. Their lack of formal education is often blamed.
Undermining Dalit women’s knowledge and experience is an example of a repressive political culture that tries to control other people. Some people with fancy degrees make bad decisions; some people with no degrees are wise and make smart decisions. So far, Dalit women have been listening to non-Dalit leaders throughout history. Can we imagine what it would have been like if it had been the other way around? How would history have played out if more people had listened to Dalit women?
What is clear after several rounds of elections in Nepal is that Dalit women who are criticised as followers have become leaders despite having little experience of holding power and position. However, many non-Dalits—and even many Dalit men—do not accept Dalit women as leaders. Januka Gahatraj’s story helps us understand the social barriers Dalit women leaders face.
Januka was elected as a ward member of Melung Rural Municipality in Dolakha through the Dalit women quota. She told me that from the very beginning, the population had hesitated to publicly accept her as a representative. Because water supply was a problem in her village, she helped distribute water pipes through the Drinking Water Consumer Committee. However, in April last year, someone put a dead snake inside a newly built water tank. Instead of finding the true troublemaker, Januka was blamed for the incident. She was also shamed by a young Brahmin woman who falsely and publicly accused her of having an illegitimate relationship with the village chairperson.
The next day, an Uprety man tried to kill her with a sickle. A week before, Januka had also been attacked and beaten by a group of women after she was accused of reporting illegal alcohol producers to the police. In addition, someone tried to burn down her house. Januka's goat died, and her cow received serious burns. If she had not reached home and doused the fire herself, she would have lost everything.
When Januka reported these incidents to the police and the chairperson of the rural municipality, she was pressured to remain silent. Her story shows that Dalit women have the vision to develop their communities and the courage to serve under frightening circumstances. Similarly, it also points to a larger problem: Lack of social acceptance of elected Dalit women. A systemic change needs to happen at the core to alter the social memory of the place of Dalits in Nepali history.
Word is sword
Januka’s case shows the difficulties Dalit women representatives face in gaining acceptance despite acquiring a share of power. In previous years, non-Dalit leaders didn’t even invite Dalit women to party meetings. However, Dalit women have begun asserting themselves by being more vocal and aware. Dalit women representatives do not want to continue the patron-client relationship that traditionally existed in these parties, and they are now aware of their political rights. They try to contribute in meetings. But they face subtle exclusion, such as others making key decisions in their absence, paying no attention to their opinions, and not giving priority to their agenda items.
Dalit women representatives interpret the situation as a hangover of the political elite looking down upon them as their labourers. Hence, non-Dalit leaders do not think it necessary to share information or listen to Dalit views. Gaura Nepali, a tireless worker for Dalit women for the past two decades and current chairperson of the Centre for Dalit Women Nepal, says, ‘Dalit women aren’t invited to meetings because they ask non-Dalit members to read out the minutes before putting their signatures, they demand more explanations. Consequently, Dalit women are deprived of their basic human rights while exercising power as people's representatives.’
What we are seeing is that while Dalit women representatives are becoming more aware of their positions and the power that comes with them, many non-Dalit leaders have also begun to push back in an attempt to retain the status quo. As long as this situation exists, no one can claim that Nepal has become truly inclusive.