Currently there are five commissioners (including the chief commissioner) at the Election Commission (EC), a constitutional body mandated to hold federal, provincial and local level elections. Of the five, Ila Sharma is the only female commissioner. It’s ironic that the commission, which is responsible for ensuring the representation of 33 percent women in the national and provincial parliaments and in political parties, is itself un-inclusive. The Public Service Commission (PSC), another constitutional body mandated to select public servants on an inclusive basis, also suffers from inadequate female representation. Of its six members (including a chairperson), only one—Brinda Hada Bhattarai—is female. Both these key constitutional bodies, with the responsibility of implementing the nation’s policy of inclusion, are rather exclusionary.
Other bodies share the same fate. The Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) is another important constitutional body where the representation of women is poor. Sabitri Gurung is the only female commissioner at the CIAA. The situation at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is also disappointing; of its six commissioners, Mohana Ansari is the only woman. No constitutional body in the country is headed by a woman.
There is no official record of political appointments of women, but observers say the low number of female appointees is an old problem. The government makes dozens of political appointments (besides those to the federal and provincial parliaments and to the cabinet), but very few appointees are women. This clearly shows the political parties’ disinclination to ensure the constitutionally-required representation of women in state organs.
The situation has remained unchanged even after the promulgation of a new constitution in 2015, the holding of three tiers of elections in 2017, and the formation of a government with a two-third majority last year. Now, there is a tendency of appointing a token number of women just to show commitment to the principle of inclusion.
In the third week of January this year, the government recommended the heads of five commissions—National Natural Resources and Fiscal Commission, National Inclusion Commission, Madhesi Commission, Tharu Commission and Muslim Commission. None of the five recommended chiefs is a woman.
In letter, not spirit
These commissions were envisioned by the constitution to promote an inclusive polity, but the approach taken to make appointments to them is not inclusive. This is a clear violation of the constitution, whose article 283 says: “Appointments to offices of constitutional organs and bodies shall be made in accordance with the inclusive principle.”
When it comes to political appointments to other state apparatuses, women’s representation is nominal as well. The core idea behind having a certain number of female political appointees is to ensure adequate representation of women in important decision-making processes. Since women are severely underrepresented in political institutions, observers say due attention should be given to securing a minimum number of seats for women.
“There is a flawed understanding among our political leaders that women cannot take up leadership and carry out their responsibilities well,” says Manchala Jha, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). “If women are given an opportunity, they are fully capable of leading constitutional and other state bodies,” she adds. Besides Jha, the TRC has one other female member (Madhabi Bhatta).
The basic principle behind political appointments is recruiting experts in specific fields. However, women with close connections to political parties are being appointed and those without such connections are denied the same opportunities. In other words, political cadres without the necessary expertise are being appointed to important positions.
Observers say the appointment of women with political access and connection does not fulfill the basic principle of inclusion, and that women from marginalized communities without political affiliations must get opportunities.
“Political appointments since the Panchayat era clearly demonstrate that women with better political connections are getting all the opportunities,” says Harihar Birahi, former President of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists. Bihari, who has been closely following the country’s political developments for several decades, says women close to the monarchy were appointed to government positions during the Panchayat period. “Right through the past five decades, capable women without good political connections have been passed over in favor of less deserving candidates with such connections,” says Birahi.
There is no official record of the political appointments made during the Panchayat and the democratic periods. But very few women were politically appointed during the Panchayat era for a few reasons. First, the number of educated women during that period was very low and it was difficult to find the appropriate person. Second, few places were allocated for political appointments. Third, the concepts of inclusion and women’s empowerment were not firmly established and there was no pressure group to take up the issue of women’s representation.
Birahi says the Panchayat regime appointed very few women to government bodies. “Now the space for political appointments has expanded, and there has been some progress in women’s representation but still not up to a desirable level,” he says.
Although there are enough qualified women now and sufficient space for appointing them, political parties are seemingly hesitant to do so. Even in offices that meet the constitutional requirement of female representation, the roles and contributions of women are not always properly recognized. There are complaints that women’s opinions are not heeded while making important decisions. Often women also carry the extra burden of having to go beyond the call of duty to prove they are as qualified as their male counterparts.
Ambassadorship is another area where the government makes political appointments. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nepal has embassies in 30 countries, of which two—those in Oman and Japan—have women ambassadors who were politically appointed: Sarmila Parajuli Dhakal and Prativa Rana respectively. Rana, who is the mother-in-law of the Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba, was appointed by the previous government. Besides Dhakal and Rana, Sewa Lamsal Adhikari is a woman ambassador (to Pakistan), but she’s a joint secretary at the MoFA, not a political appointee.
Lucky Sherpa, who was serving as the Nepali Ambassador to Australia, stepped down a few days ago after being accused of human trafficking, although she has denied the charges. In 2012, Maya Kumar Sharma, who was serving as the Nepali Ambassador to Qatar, was recalled over her objectionable remarks against the Gulf nation.
Among those most recently recommended for an ambassadorial position, the only woman is Anjan Shakya (to Israel). There is already criticism that Shakya was chosen directly under Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s order: The two are distant relatives.
The current pattern of ambassadorial appointments clearly goes against constitutional provisions. Article 282 of the constitution says, “The President may, on the basis of the principle of inclusion, appoint Nepalese ambassadors and special emissaries for any specific purposes.”
In contrast, powerful countries are appointing female ambassadors to Nepal. Hou Yanqi is the new Chinese Ambassador to Nepal. Other countries have also appointed female ambassadors to Nepal. Egypt, Bangladesh, Brazil, Sri Lanka and China have female ambassadors in Kathmandu, as does the European Union.
Besides constitutional bodies and ambassadorial positions, political appointments are made to public enterprises, which are under government control. But again, very few women have been appointed to these bodies. And the heads of state-owned Nepal Television, Radio Nepal, Rastriya Samachar Samiti and Gorkhapatra Cooperation are all politically appointed males.
Political appointment is an overlooked issue in Nepal. Women leaders and members of the civil society haven’t exerted enough pressure on the government and political parties to ensure 33 percent female representation in political appointments. The current scenario is unlikely to change unless women leaders from across the political spectrum come together to build pressure. Similarly, the Public Service Commission should compel the government to ensure that at least a third of the political appointees are women.