Polls give Nepal women special joy this Mother’s Day

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS,

Kathmandu : When Shanti Devi inadvertently touched the clothes of a minor government official laid out in the open to dry in the sun, she had to pay dearly for it. The 35-year-old, belonging to Nepal’s shoemaking Chamar community who were regarded as untouchables, was publicly humiliated – a memory that is deeply singed in her mind.

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Now years later, the whirligig of time has given the woman from Kapilavastu district sweet revenge with the third largest party, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, sending her as its representative to the constituent assembly, which will write a new constitution for Nepal.

“My endeavour will be to ensure stringent laws to punish people who practise untouchability,” she says.

Like the school dropout, dozens of other women are rejoicing as Nepal celebrates Mother’s Day Monday after a long life of hardship, thanks to last month’s historic constituent assembly election that has boosted the presence of women in the national decision-making process like never before, with 190 seats out of the 575 contested ones going to them.

In Kaski district in central Nepal, Krishna Kumari Pariyar also has special reason to celebrate.

The 45-year-old, who too belongs to the Dalit community and stands at the bottom of Nepal’s social hierarchy, struggled valiantly for 25 years after her husband threw her out.

The mother of five, who turned to needlecraft to sustain her children and herself, tasted heady triumph with her Nepali Congress party choosing her as its representative in the 601-member constituent assembly.

Though only 29 women made it in the first race for 240 directly contested seats, the second phase, which saw representatives being nominated on the basis of proportional representation, has seen 161 more enter the assembly.

On one end of the spectrum are widows whose husbands were killed either in poll violence or during the 10-year savage ‘people’s war’ when security forces hunted down the Maoist guerrillas and their supporters.

On the other, are members of Nepal’s aristocracy and intelligentsia, like former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s wife Arjoo Deuba and leading legal activist Sapana Malla Pradhan.

Whatever their place in society, the women will be focussing on pro-women’s laws in the new constitution.

“I am going to press for laws that will make healthcare mandatory for women and children,” says Arjoo Deuba, whose NGO Saathi started the first shelter for battered wives in Nepal.

One of the most remarkable women representatives in the assembly will be Karima Begu, who will make history by becoming the first Muslim woman to reach a legislative body.

The daughter of a conservative preacher, she was ordered to wear the burkha and stay indoors. She was married at 14 and became a mother a year later.

Today, the mother of three has made history by winning from the important commercial Birgunj town on the Indo-Nepal border from the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum party in the direct fights.

“I am going to raise my voice not just for Muslim women or Madhesi women (women from the plains) but for all the backward, disadvantaged communities,” she says.