South Asia can be deceptive when it comes to gender equality. On one hand, there is the mother figure so revered throughout the region, the mataji role every man and woman can look up to.
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum – bride burnings, constant rape and violence that women at the bottom of the social strata must endure. In between, especially in countries such as ours where girl children are welcomed and given all opportunities men can have, there is a growing generation of women hungry for opportunities, able to steer themselves into the toughest of careers and remain focused on higher goals.
But what sets South Asian region in a class of its own is its culture of sustaining political dynasties. From Bhuttos to Gandhis and Bandaranaikes, women of these political dynasties have proven that when it comes to leadership , they bring to the table a whole new set of dynamics that are valid and acceptable ; this is especially true in countries where women in leadership has not always been the norm.
Much promise for gender equality?
Enter one of the most culturally conservative countries in the region – Nepal. It recently elected its first ever, female President. Bidhya Devi Bhandari was chosen to become the ceremonial head of state as a member of the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN), defeating her opponent in a 327-214 vote in Parliament recently.
Bhandari’s election comes after the appointment of Nepali Parliament’s first woman speaker, Onsari Gharti, elected last week – and who proclaimed Bhandari’s victory.
So does that hold out much promise for gender equality in the country? Nepal adopted a new and amended constitution in September this year ; it requires women to have a considerable representation in parliament, assemblies and governmental committees. Having campaigned strongly for women’s rights in a male centric country such as Nepal. Bhandari believes that her appointment can pave way for other women to be elected to key positions in the Government.
Yet for all the enthusiasm the world has shown on her appointment, the role of the President in Nepal remains largely a ceremonial post with power lying in the hands of Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli.
The critics have not hesitated in pointing out that just like many South Asian female leaders before her, Bhandari too is the widow of a high profile politician Madan Bhandari who was killed in 1993 in a motor accident. She started her rise as a young woman and succeeded in winning two terms in parliament ; she has also served as Nepal’s defense minister.
Her background as a stanch Communist saw her push for reforms that would assure women a greater place in society. She was also one of the ardent campaigners against the ancient monarchy of Nepal.
Bhandari has not been without controversy; eyebrows were raised following her comments on the new constitution in media ; it said she criticized feminists and women’s rights advocates who are demanding more rights as ‘being influenced by Western values.’ Yet, despite the flaws, many remain optimistic that Bhandari can indeed pave way for change.
Despite the resounding success of Bhandari and her hopes for women to move forward, CIA’s World Factbook notes that only 53 percent of Nepali women can read while 76 percent of Nepali men remain literate.
Additionally, The Gender Gap Report put out by The World Economic Forum has ranked Nepal at the bottom for gender inequalities. In 2013, Nepal was ranked 121 out of 135 countries , going down from 111th in 2006.
Yet analysts believe that there is hope for gender status to be elevated in Nepal. Nepali women may score low in terms of economic participation, health, and education but when it comes to political empowerment, they rank a high 43rd in the world. With an amended constitution and a woman heading the country even in a ceremonial role, many believe that change will come that may revolutionize the gender gap.
The high level of political participation by women in Nepal augurs well for the nation; even with an increasing level of economic empowerment and despite playing a key role in generating income, in Sri Lanka, political empowerment of women remains low. In South Asia as a region, there seems to be less political participation among women – most believe it maybe a lack of political will rather than being held back on gender grounds.
Bhandari will have a lot to get done during her term – she will need all the support she can get and the assurance that women can indeed overcome even the toughest circumstances in one of the most conservative nations, to push for change.
(The writer is a senior journalist and a PR professional. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)