I remember the pride I felt when I became the first British woman ambassador to Nepal in 2019. The leadership at the British Embassy, which had always been men, was changing. When I went to present my credentials to the President, as every new ambassador must do, I felt proud as I stood in front of the first female President this country has ever appointed. I sensed a connection between us—a mutual recognition perhaps of each other’s achievements.
The Head of State may be largely a ceremonial post in Nepal, but I know the election of Bidya Devi Bhandari as the country's first woman President has inspired many Nepali women to dream bigger and aim higher. It has cemented the idea that Nepali women are equal to Nepali men, in principle and in practice.
Two years before I arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal had achieved an even more remarkable milestone of gender equality in political participation. The country had successfully held the first elections to the three spheres of government under its new constitution and women had been elected to at least 33 percent leadership positions in federal, provincial and local governments.
Today, 112 (33.53 percent) of the total 334 members of Nepal’s federal parliament are women. Critics may dismiss this achievement, arguing that the percentage of female members of parliament is low compared to the population. That’s true, and there’s a long way to go. But it’s also true that female representation in Nepal is comparable to the UK’s parliament, well above the global average of under 24 percent, and even more remarkable when set against the South Asian average of less than 18 percent.
Nepali women have taken one third of the legislative seats at the provincial level as well. Of the 555 members of the state assemblies across seven provinces, almost one-third (181) are women. They are making valuable and dynamic contributions to strengthening the foundations of federalism.
At the local level, women’s political participation is even more encouraging. Of the 35,000 local elected representatives, over 14,000 (nearly 41 percent) are women. As mayors, deputy mayors, ward chairs and ward committee members, they are making local laws and policies, and delivering public service at the grassroots level.
However, these impressive numbers of Nepali women leaders belie a complex issue of gender inequality. Most women remain subordinate to male leadership. Ninety-one percent of Nepal’s deputy mayors and rural municipality deputy chiefs are women. But how many women are mayors and rural municipality chiefs? Only two percent. How many women are ward chairs? Just one percent.
Another example: only six of the 165 directly elected members of the House of Representatives are women. The other 84 women were nominated through the reserved quotas. What do these numbers tell us? That very few women leaders were given party tickets to fight direct elections. Did the party leadership not believe in women’s leadership abilities to build their own constituencies and win elections?
I believe women should be present at all levels of leadership. Evidence suggests that where women are more active in leadership positions, civil participation is higher, corruption is lower, services are better, politics is less combative and more inclusive, and stability is higher. Inclusive and balanced representation helps everyone to grow and exercise their human rights.
I have met and exchanged views with many women leaders in and outside Kathmandu over the last two years. They may represent opposing political views, but they share a common challenge: women have been sidelined to deputy positions and reserved quotas despite their enormous contributions to public service.
Despite the barriers that still face women in Nepal, I am optimistic that more women will reach leadership positions when Nepal holds local elections on May 13 this year, and for good reason.
Firstly, women deputy mayors and ward committee members now have years of experience running local governments. They are eager to stand for higher positions and are committed to doing better for their communities.
Secondly, local women representatives have earned the trust of their constituencies and are now in stronger positions to win elections.
And thirdly, I have found Nepal's political leadership increasingly progressive and willing to increase women’s political participation. In recent years, they have backed women as head of state, speaker, deputy speaker, chief minister and cabinet ministers, which shows that the door is open to more women in leadership positions.
In the lead up to the local elections, I want to call on Nepal's political leaders to put in more effort toward creating an environment that improves women’s chances of reaching leadership positions. The first step is to field more female candidates for mayor, rural municipality chief and ward chair.
The UK is a strong supporter of women’s rights and leadership. Increasing women's political participation is one of the key pillars of our strategic vision for gender equality. That is because it is not only right that women should be given the chance to lead, but it’s essential. Nepal’s own ambitions to reach middle income by 2030 and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals depend on having more women in political leadership positions. We have been supporting Nepal to increase political participation of women for many years, and we will be providing more support in the years to come. The UK’s support to girls’ education, women’s economic empowerment, and security and justice for women in Nepal, underpin and support our efforts to increase women’s political participation.
It is in this same spirit that I have been joined by seven other women ambassadors and heads of agencies based in Kathmandu for our leadership mentoring initiative. Over the course of this year, each of us will help to support the career and leadership aspirations of a young woman. I hope that these smart young women take what they learn and go on to inspire countless others.
We are now two months away from this year’s local elections. This is the best time for all of us to accelerate our efforts towards creating equal opportunities in politics for Nepali women. In my own capacity, I will be speaking out for leadership and helping women to #BreakTheBias.
The author is the British Ambassador to Nepal