Why vote for women?

More meaningful participation of women in politics can help spread the peace dividends and development gains more equitably.

Date: Friday, November 22, 2013

As Nepal heads to polls in less than five days, very few women are contesting elections under the first-past-the-post category. Even the very few nominated have been asked to compete against powerful male leaders.  The potential role of women and its positive effects on the society continues to be overlooked both in Nepal and other countries. But societies that have tapped into women power have clearly benefited from having more women representation.

A recent study by International Monetary Fund (IMF) entitled “Women, Work, and the Economy: Macroeconomic Gains from Gender Equity,” shows that the countries can see considerable increase in productivity if men and women participated equally in the workforce. For example, a level playing field for women in UAE can increase the country’s GDP by 12 percent, Japan’s by 9 percent and United States’ by 5 percent.

Having more women in higher echelons of power means a larger talent pool and a fuller perspective in governing. This can lead to innovations in solving economic and social problems.

Take Rwanda, for example. Today it is number one in the world, with 64 percent of seats in Parliament held by women. What is surprising is that this country went through a horrific genocidal civil war about two decades ago where nearly a million people were killed and a large number of the victims were women.

Thanks largely to the proactive participation of women in politics, business and administration, Rwanda’s rapid development today belies it horrific past.

Rwanda's economy expanded by 8.8 percent in 2011, and is expected to climb another 7.5 percent this year, according to Rwandan Central Bank. Between 2001 and 2010, the country's economy doubled in size, according to the World Bank.

It is perhaps this gratitude towards female politicians in Rwanda that the country’s voters in September 2013 gave an unprecedented 64 percent of seats in the lower house to women politicians—exceeding the constitutional provision of 30 percent by over hundred percent.

Sadly, women parliamentarians in Nepal continue to be overlooked and sidelined when it comes to governance and decision-making.

Even though there is a higher constitutional provision of 33 percent representation of women in the Constituent Assembly in Nepal, political parties have struggled to field enough female candidates in the first-past-the-post system. The proportional system may ultimately help to meet the quota, but this deprives female politicians of real clout.

We are not suggesting that the achievement of 33 percent representation of women in 2008 CA was a mean fete, it was indeed a moment of pride for the whole country and numbers do matter. And it is important that such an achievement should be continued and not reduced to a mere historical fact.

As the clock ticks for another election for the Constituent Assembly, the decision of the major political parties not to maintain the same number of female candidates as the previous elections is cause for concern.

In the previous CA election only 368 female candidates stood up for First Past the Post (FPTP) against 3,578 male candidates (10.2 %) out of which only 30 (9%) women won the election. Out of these 30 women, 24 were from UCPN-M. It implies that the FPTP results for women heavily relied on a single party.

For the upcoming CA elections, UCPN-M has fielded only 26 women candidates in FPTP as against 42 women in previous CA election. There are 664 female candidates against 5,678 male candidates and 1 third gender. Out of 30 female candidates that won direct race in previous elections, only one third have been given tickets by their parties this time. Even in under the Proportional Representation system, despite the 50 percent quota for women, it appears that the target may not be met. Women are also adversely affected by the 10 percent flexibility given to the parties in fulfilling quota system after allocation of the seats.

This calls into question the commitment of party leaders to uphold even constitutional provisions. Every political party should value both male and female candidates equally, provide support to enable them to run for the election with confidence. Their manifestos should ensure women’s rights including political rights.

Strong support from the family members is also a prerequisite for female candidates to be more forthcoming and assertive in political space.  

But not everything is bleak.

The voter registration data for the election shows a marked achievement in getting more Nepalese women registered. Out of total registered voters, 50.73 percent are female as against 49.26 percent males and 0.0012 percent third gender. In previous election it was 48.49% female and 51.5% male registered voters. The rise in female voter registration can be credited to civic and voter campaigns conducted by the Election Commission.

The Election Commission has also recently unveiled a Gender and Social Inclusion Policy. This will help to create conducive environment for women and different social groups to cast their vote in future elections.  

In order to translate both the demographic strength and affirmative policies into tangible political power for women, national and international institutions have to actively advocate for a fairer polity in Nepal. This will require support for more internal democracy within parties and empowerment of women politicians so that they can contribute to the direction the country wants to take.

As things stand now, parties may struggle to meet the 33 percent quota for women. The Election Commission has an important role to play in enforcing these constitutional provisions so that the historical gains are not lost.

As seen elsewhere, the very presence of female politicians clearly diversifies the policy agenda and promotes equity and justice. And clearly democracy cannot truly deliver for all of its citizens if half of the populations remain underrepresented in the political arena. Can we truly call it a democracy when half of the population is underrepresented?

The argument for more women in politics is both smart and just.  And voters and parties in Nepal should give them a chance.

Ms. Noda is UNDP Country Director in Nepal and Mr. Sheikh is UN Women Representative in Nepal

Originally written in Nepalese and published in Kantipur newspaper, 19 November 2013


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