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A sit-down with Madame President in the context of Int’l Women’s Day

KATHMANDU:  President Bidya Devi Bhandari has said women’s movement in Nepal has a strong foundation.

As a result of the relentless struggle of the Nepali women taking place in the country since a century for equal (parallel) rights as men, presently women occupy three key posts of the state and the President likes to call it a pleasant coincidence in the country’s history.

Admitting a situation still existed in which Nepali women needed to go for a big movement to get their rights guaranteed, the President said although the Nepal’s constitution has opened the door for Nepali women to politically compete with their male counterparts for equal rights and opportunities, there is still no situation for achieving equal and parallel positions.

The World is celebrating the 107th International Women’s Day (IWD) today with the theme of ‘Be Bold for Change’ and on the same context, RSS Editor-in-Chief Raju Shakya and Senior Reporter Narayan Neupane had an opportunity to interview the first woman President of Nepal, Bidya Devi Bhandari, focusing on the issues of the women’s movement in Nepal, women’s empowerment, her role as a patron of the Constitution, other contemporary issues and the upcoming election. President Bhandari assumed the high post on 29th October, 2015.

Excerpts:

The Right Honorable President, how do you view the women leadership simultaneously reaching to the top positions of the State—the President, the Chief Justice and the Speaker? 
This is a very pleasant coincidence. This is an achievement of a long battle being launched for the rights of women for over a century. Many leading women figures struggled for equal rights. There has been a great sacrifice for that. This, a historic and glorious phenomenon, is an outcome of all such efforts and contribution of the pioneering women personalities.

Madame President, what are the major agenda of the women movement since its beginning a century ago to date and how much of it is addressed till now and what is your take on this? 
The agenda of women movement remain almost unchanged since the beginning, as I perceive it. When I tried to know about the women movement in Nepal, I found that its agenda are almost same since the start. The issues of equality, rights to education and property are now partially achieved. But they are yet to be fully addressed. In the history of Nepal, contribution and sacrifice of Yogmaya Neupane to the women movement is incomparable.

The contribution of Yogmaya (1860-1941) who had vigorously struggled for the women’s rights to education, against child marriage, polygamy and Sati Pratha (an obsolete Hindu funeral where a widow immolates herself on her husband’s pyre and this was in practice in Nepal until the then Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shamser completely banned this ill-practice in 1977 BS), prompting the widow marriage is yet to be globally recognized. Yogmaya’s contribution and sacrifice to leading the women’s movement to the present situation seems to have fallen under shadow. But, I personally take her revolution as a milestone in Nepal’s women movement.

This is a big happening of Nepal’s history that she (Yogmaya) strongly raised voices for equal rights to women at a time when the country was ruled by the tyrannical Rana dynasty and she, finally with a group of her supporters, consciously committed the mass suicide (Jal Samadhi) by jumping into the Arun River with the hope that it would make the then Rana rulers realize women’s rights. Nepali women, taking a lesson and inspiration from that event, are continuing their struggle for equal rights.

Women rights activists Mangaladevi Singh, Sahana Pradhan, Sadhana Pradhan, Shailaja Acharya and Rewanta Kumari Acharya, following on the footsteps of Yogmaya, contributed to the women’s movement. Then after, the women movement got a momentum in 2035-36 BS and was intensified in 2046 BS to arrive to the present situation. These all are enough to say that women movement in Nepal is stronger from its foundation.

The proposal of public importance introduced on your initiation had guaranteed the 33 percent women participation in every State apparatus. What are the agenda (in your view) left to be raised from the side of women? 
The agenda about women’s participation in the mainstream of politics raised in the reinstated House of Representatives after the 2006 People’s Movement would be addressed only by providing fifty percent reservation to women. One third seats are reserved for women to meet the goal of equality.

I, myself, had taken initiative to prepare that proposal for women’s reservation and it was registered at the Parliament Secretariat. Efforts were made from some quarters to prevent the proposal from registering at the Parliament. Our agenda was for equal status for women.

The proposal for the mandatory one–third women’s participation was brought with the realization that the implementation of the reservation quota for women was necessary to increase their competitiveness to have equal opportunities when there was less than five per cent women representation in politics. The slogan- “All are equals,” was just limited to words and I insisted on going this way.

The proposal was later endorsed by the House. But the Nepali women are yet to get an equal status as male in practice and further constitutional and legal provisions are necessary to provide them a ground for racing towards equality. Thirty-three to forty per cent women participation will be seen in the local-level election. But it seems that such participation is guaranteed just in women’s candidacy which just provides a ground to stand up and move ahead. The provision is that there must a woman candidate either in the election of the Chief or Deputy Chief of the village body. But, it is not certain whether a woman candidate wins the election. This provision has paved the way for women to go for the competition, but still there is no situation for attaining an equal and parallel status in politics.

More, violence against woman is an issue in Nepal. All sorts of violence against women must be eliminated. Corrections must be made on the discriminatory laws against women. Though efforts towards that end are underway, these are not enough.

The issue of citizenships in mother’s name is a bit complicated. Our demand of that time was for providing citizenship to the Nepali children deprived of this status due to various reasons. But it was interpreted wrongly from some quarters. Still the provision of granting citizenship to Nepali children in the mother’s name is yet to be established as a system. Agenda raised at that time were just partially addressed and I see the need of further movement to get them fully guaranteed.

The principle of equality is that daughters and sons should have an equal right to parental property. But it does not mean that with only having their right to parental property, women become empowered. The concept for an equal right to such property was an attempt to break the discriminatory law. The law leaving the parents to decide regarding the right to parental property came in less than 10 years of the guarantee of daughter’s right to parental property reflects the mindset of the society.

Madame President, the agenda of inclusion is raised of late, what can be done to increase women’s inclusion and take them to the leading role? 
The issue of inclusion has been guaranteed by the law. The law has ensured the women inclusion in every State level. Despite this provision, leadership building and capacity enhancement of women are not possible from the implementation of the principle of inclusion alone. Focus should be laid on raising their competitiveness. Whether a candidate selected under a reserved quota should always be encouraged to move ahead under the same process or go for an open competition from the next round is also a matter of discussion.

The concept of mandatory participation of women status just in laws, but not in action never materializes the dream of establishing an equal society. The Nepalese society is male-dominated which barred the women from racing towards equality. The provision of mandatory five per cent women representation in the election candidacies before the Constituent Assembly (CA) election had somehow contributed to promoting women’s involvement in politics.

Presently, the Constitution has ensured the 33 percent women participation in the House of Representatives and the National Assembly. The spirit of the Constitution is that if the 33 per cent women participation there turned impossible through a direct electoral system, political parties must to guarantee it by the implementation of the principle of proportional representation.

Madame President, what is your message on the occasion of the International Women’s Day? 
Many-many congratulations to all Nepali sisters and brothers at home and aboard. We, without struggle, are not supposed to get equal rights. This is not only happening in Nepal, but a global trend. Instead, Nepal is ahead of other many countries in the word in terms of the guarantee of women’s rights. It has allotted more rights to women comparing to world’s big and powerful countries, which is an exemplary move.

We advocate for the establishment of society based on the co-existence of women and men. I wish women across the world stand for their rights.

Madame President, how, as a guardian of the Constitution, do you watch the country’s post-constitution promulgation scenario? 
The Constitution has been promulgated and this itself is a great achievement. There were confusions among the people for a certain time being before the promulgation of the Constitution.

People, with the situation for holding the election of Constituent Assembly (CA), a big body of people’s representatives, second time, seemed confused as to how the constitution would be drafted. But such confusions were cleared off with the promulgation of the Constitution. Now, the time has come to make the people realize the achievements of the Constitution.

It is the common responsibility of all us to establish peace, stability and to develop the country in the aftermath of the promulgation of the Constitution. Nepal is rich in resources necessary for development, despite its geographical difficulties.

We must develop the country to improve the people’s livelihood. Political parties should contribute from their respective positions to the efforts and the wave of development. The Nepal’s Constitution has defined the role of the President as the protector of the Constitution and promoter of the national unity and I, as the Head-of-the-State, am carrying out my duties and functions allotted by the Constitution.

My efforts are to further enhancing national independency and morale of Nepalis residing across the world to promote the feeling of nationality among them, social goodwill and making the country economically stronger.

I, as the President of Nepal, am trying to prod the government remaining in the role of an executive body and political parties by confining myself in the parameters of the Constitution.

Madame President, there were expectations that the country would witness a rapid economic growth coupled with political stability, but mass public grievance is that such expectations remained unmet? 
In our country, the political transition happened to prolong. Most of the national agendas were mired in a dilemma and it would take long to resolve them. For instance, the constituent assembly, whose term was determined for two years, went on to be extended next two years.

Furthermore, we all know that constituent assembly election had to be held for the second time. Thereafter, new constitution was promulgated in two years in accordance with the people’s mandate.

Nepal did not lack constitution even before the promulgation of new constitution but new demands were to be accommodated in the new national statute. The new constitution might not have addressed the demands of one and all. Hence, this led to a dissent which eventually affected local body’s election.

We all should acknowledge that election is the soul of democracy. How could democracy be strong without election? How could people express their thoughts? The local body’s election has not taken place for around 20 years. By holding the local body’s election, the national politics would not have been affected adversely, would it? 
It is imperative to usher our country towards peace, stability and development by holding all three-tiers of constitution mandated elections within January, 2018.

(Referring to post promulgation of constitution days), we should have made self-decisions when it comes to addressing the uncertainty in the national polity. The political parties should not give in to the external pressure and influences rather take into account the national interest when it comes to making important decisions.

Madame President, what kind of initiatives are being undertaken under your aegis to build a prosperous and strong Nepal? 
I understand that all the Nepalis love their country, yet the Nepalis abroad have more care and concern for their homeland than those at home.

There are many international friends, communities who care for Nepal and Nepalis and who want Nepal to move ahead as a prosperous and strong country. We can head the country in cooperation of countries which are our well wishers.

The Gorkha Earthquake incurred a huge loss of lives, properties and cultural heritages. It is evident that the international community leaped forward to help Nepal for post-disaster relief, rescue and reconstruction operation.

The international community pledged investment worth more than Rs 140 billion in the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction, 2015 to help rebuild Nepal but in lack of spending capacity and proper mechanism, the post-disaster reconstruction works have not been expedited at a desired pace. All we need is technology and investment to move ahead in this realm.

The main objective of the donor agencies’ Conference was to disseminate the message that Nepal is safe for investment.

Not to mention, our foreign policy is guided by non-alignment policy. We should move ahead by safeguarding the national interest. We should be undeterred by foreign intervention and power struggle. Letting peace prevail and ensuring development in the country should outline our prime concerns.

Furthermore, we should be able to capitalize on the international communities’ good will towards Nepal for the greater good of the country. It’s no good to always rely on our neighbors and rather we should be self-reliant, and help build a strong economy.

Instead of projecting deficit in budget every year and anticipating financial aid from our well-wishers, I say, let’s root out the dependency tendency.

Exchanging of cooperation with international communities should be underscored for instance exporting quality water and electricity outside the country and importing products that are not manufactured domestically.

Sectors offering huge prospects for economic development such as agriculture, tourism and cultural heritages should be prioritized. Promotion of propagation of the Himalayan ranges including the highest peak, Sagarmatha, Propagator of Peace, Lord Buddha, and his birthplace in Lumbini, Kathmandu as City of Temples, among others must be high on national agenda.

Madame President, how progressive have been the discussions you have been holding with various political parties to outlet the political impasse in the country? What has been your understanding of the issues? 
I find the political climate positive in the country. I am hopeful that the political parties will work in tandem with one another for the best interest of the country. One of the major political achievements Nepal has made over the course is Nepal transitioning into Federal Democratic Republic.

The new constitution, with inclusiveness as its salient feature, has not only ensured equal rights for women alike men but also secured the rights of marginalized and minorities.

Although it takes time to break the shackles of age-old traditions and ill practices, the cases of caste-based discrimination have been ended and more positive changes are expected.
It would be our weakness if we failed to deliver these achievements to the public.

Furthermore, the salient features of the new constitution such as federalism, republicanism and inclusiveness and the mention of “socialism-oriented” in the preamble of new constitution should be brought into effect.

Talk does not cook rice. Only action does. How can we head the country with mutual talks alone? It’s high time we implement and institutionalize achievements. I have been offering the same piece of suggestions to the political leaders. 
I am hopeful that they are serious enough and the long overdue local body election takes place on time and other elections would also be held within the stipulated time.

We all are aware that the new constitution has determined the tenure of the current parliament. I have also advised the leaders to be aware of the political vacuum if the elections are not held on time.

I understand that the country is moving ahead at a good pace in the wake of the announcement of date for the local body election.

Madame President, what kind of measures the State should devise to make women at par with men? What are your expectations with the government to create job for women and empower them economically? 
There should be constitutional provision to uplift the status of women and make them at par with men. It means, the current constitutional provision to ensure at least 33 per cent women’s representation in the state organs at all levels should be increased to 50 per cent. Then we should move ahead by watching how the society would function thereafter.

I firmly believe in the principle of co-existence. Thus, I understand that women and men be on equal footing.

There is no end to the sagas of the trial and tribulations faced by the Nepalis. It saddens me deeply to witness such gruesome situation of women in our country.

The government of Nepal has been hugely spending on the education, health and skill-oriented trainings for women empowerment. The real question lies in its efficient utilization.

The labor migration trend is such in the country that more foreigners are migrating to Nepal for employment than Nepalis seeking foreign pastures. Should not we consider charity begins at home? 

Why should we go foreign shores to do menial jobs such as rearing sheep and doing the laundry? We could tap the employment opportunities for ourselves in our own soil.

We need huge work force at different capacities for post-disaster works, be it trained artisans or well-educated technicians and experts as engineers.

(Describing the post-quake scenario in lack of effective reconstruction and rehabilitation), the quake-damaged houses, those rendered uninhabitable are still uninhabited and farmlands are barren yet. The cruelty of time is to be blamed too for such repercussions.

It saddens me to a large extent that a big chuck of work force started flocking abroad for employment during the armed insurgency and since clashes between Madhesh and hill region ensued. (She opines that this trend needs to be bucked by considering job creation in the country.)

Various people’s movements introduced several political transformations in the country. But public remark that the attitude of political leaders have remained unchanged nor their lifestyles have been simplified. What’s your take on it? 
The political parties’ leaders should understand that they are the leaders of the people. The philosophy of simplicity, ethical conduct and ideals should reflect on their lifestyle. They should be at the beck and call of the public.

–  RSS, REPUBLICA

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