This is what leadership looks like: Laxmi Badi, a Dalit woman leader from Nepal, fights inequality every dayLaxmi Badi, a Dalit woman leader from Nepal is at the forefront of the struggle for equal rights, even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In South Asia, persons from Dalit community are at the bottom of the archaic “caste system” – a social stratification, whereby individuals face multiple generations of discrimination and segregation based on their descent.
Author: Subeksha Poudel
Laxmi Badi, 40, is a member of the Ward Committee and Judicial Committee of Dipayal Silgadhi Municipality in far western Nepal, since 2017.
- Globally, ethnic minorities, women migrants, women in rural areas, women with disabilities and indigenous women continue to face discrimination and exclusion from public life. Gender equality and good governance cannot be achieved unless public life and decision-making includes women and girls in all their diversity.
- Only 24.9 per cent of national parliamentarians are women. At the local level, women hold over 2 million elected seats, or 36 percent.
- Gender quotas increase women’s representation in legislatures and other sectors when they are well designed and effectively implemented. Ambitious targets, enforcement and penalties for political parties’ non-compliance are needed for countries to achieve their targets. While 77 countries have quotas for local deliberative bodies, only one-quarter of them require 50/50 gender parity.
- Everyone suffers from the under-representation of women. For effective COVID-19 response and recovery, the participation of women and girls in decision-making is needed for policies and budgets to effectively meet everyone’s needs and build back better.
Ten years back, when she visited a temple to offer her prayers, the people in her community disapproved her action. “A Dalit woman will not pollute the temple by giving her offerings," they said. A mob was coming closer, threatening to hit Badi.
Such discrimination was not new to Badi.
Throughout her life, her teachers, friends and neighbours had actively avoided being in her proximity, fearing ill luck, because she was from the Dalit community, and considered “untouchable”.
However, this time Badi decided to speak up because she was aware such discrimination was illegal and knew where to report it.
Mustering all her courage, she told the priest, "Take this offering, or I will file a case on caste-based discrimination.” She expected the angry fists to start pounding on her, but the priest took her offering without another word.
Soon after this incident, Badi joined the Feminist Dalit Organization and supported Dalit women to raise cattle and become economically independent.
As the next step in her career, she was eager to join politics.
In June 2017, Badi won the local election as a ward member of her municipality.
In 2020, she took in a UN Women programme funded by the Government of Finland, which provided leadership and governance training.
Leaving no-one behind during COVID-19
During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, Badi's municipality saw an influx of Nepali migrant workers returning from India. As per the protocol, the returnee migrants were required to quarantine for 14 days at a local facility. However, the onset of COVID-19 exacerbated pre-existing discrimination against the Dalit community. The people from 'upper castes' in the quarantine centre refused to let Dalit returnee migrant workers enter the premises and locked the gates saying they might spread COVID-19.
When Badi found out, she went with a hammer and smashed the lock. She explained to everyone that any one of them, including people from 'upper castes', could test positive for COVID-19. She advised all to maintain physical distance and warned if anyone discriminated against the Dalits, she would have to report them to the police.
She also provided support to the survivors of gender-based violence in the quarantine centre. Behind locked doors, violence against women was on the rise. When Badi heard of a woman in the quarantine centre being physically abused by her husband, she made sure that the victim received medical care. She follows up with her regularly to ensure her safety and provides information about her rights.
Badi’s continuous efforts to address inequality have earned her respect in her municipality. As a ward member, her priority has been the most marginalized people in her municipality. Prior to COVID-19, Badi's team went from door to door, ensuring that people living with disability had identity cards and that all senior citizens had their citizenship proof, which are required for availing services. Badi also facilitated streamlining processes so that they could access state benefits and pensions at the ward office closer to home. Furthermore, Badi has supported the roll-out of training programmes for single women to generate and improve their income. During the pandemic, Badi also made sure that those in need received relief packages with food and sanitation products.
Quota systems and dedicated mentorship are key to equality
"Without the quota system, I would not be where I am today," shares Badi. She believes that mandated gender quotas for elected positions, together with supportive training, has maximized her impact in public life.
“True uplifting of women and the Dalit community will only come with a change of mindsets.”
Nepal’s Local Election Act (2017) calls for two out of four seats to be reserved for women, one of which to be held by a Dalit woman, in each ward of the 753 municipalities. Likewise, the law also mandates that at least one of the executive positions at the local municipal level should be held by a woman – for instance, between Mayor and Deputy Mayor at the municipal level, one or the other must be a woman.
UN Women partnered with Justice and Rights Institute (JuRI) to train women like Badi on gender-responsive and inclusive governance. The participants learned about feminist leadership, local governance and gender laws. The knowledge and skills that Badi gained now enables her to effectively advocate for resources for women and marginalized groups, including persons living with disability.
Badi is determined to create an enabling environment for more women from her community to be in positions of power. There are hierarchies within the Dalit community. She believes there must be separate quotas for the most marginalized communities within Dalits and targeted interventions.
"The new constitution (2015) of Nepal presented a great opportunity to advance gender and social inclusion. Its quota provisions enabled 41 per cent of elected women representatives to lead local government bodies following the federal election of 2017," says Santosh Acharya, UN Women Programme Officer. He believes that the training programme provides the kind of skills, knowledge and mentorship that newly elected women representatives need to serve their constituencies well and demonstrate their political leadership.
To date, UN Women has trained more than 95 elected women representatives from Sudurpaschim Province of Nepal.
Badi credits her family for her achievements: "My husband's enthusiastic encouragement pushes me to aim higher," she says. Together, Badi and her husband are raising their two daughters and three sons to equally share household responsibilities. “True uplifting of women and the Dalit community will only come with a change of mindsets," says Badi.
 The new constitution of Nepal 2015 has envisaged a three-member Judicial Committee at local government units under leadership of Deputy Mayor/Deputy Chairperson to deliver justice on specific disputes as outlined in the constitution.