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International Women’s Day: Implement laws meant to empower women

International Women’s Day: Implement laws meant to empower women

Constitutionally and politically, women are empowered in the days we live in. In Nepal, the constitution and other prevailing laws are in place to protect and promote the rights of women. The constitutional arrangements ensure one-third representation of women in the legislature, which is a major breakthrough. However, it’s not the end but a means to achieve gender equality.

To argue that countries like Nepal have, exclusively, felt the burn of gender-based discrimination and they have to adopt progressive laws to uproot inequalities would be a futile claim. Developed countries like the United States (US) too have experienced gender inequality.

The American case

In the case of Bradwell v State of Illinois (1872), Justice Bradley of the US Supreme Court held that the natural and proper timidity and delicacy, which belongs to the female sex, evidently makes it unfit for many of the occupations in civic life. The paramount destiny and mission of the women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of the wife and mother. This is the law of the creator.

In this case, the state of Illinois denied Bradwell, a woman lawyer, an advocate’s license. The US Supreme Court (SC) argued that such a restriction from Illinois was not in contravention to the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Bradwell was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1890.

In Hoyt v Florida in 1961, the US SC upheld a law placing a woman on the jury list if she made a special request because as put by Harland, J, “a woman is still regarded as the center of the home and family life.”  

Departing from the previous position, the US SC in the case of Muller v Oregon (1908) was of the view that the woman’s physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantageous position for subsistence. It is still true that in the struggle for subsistence, she is not an equal competitor with her brother. She will still be where some legislation to protect her seems necessary to secure a real equality or right.

Nevertheless, the instances show that the judicial department in the US has interpreted the laws progressively as well as regressively. In June 2022, in a devastating decision that will reverberate for generations, the US Supreme Court has abandoned its duty to protect fundamental rights and overturned Roe v Wade (1973), ruling there is no constitutional right to abortion. The ruling in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization abandons nearly 50 years of precedent and marks the first time in history that the Supreme Court has taken away a fundamental right.

In Roe case, it was held that the specific guarantee of “liberty” in the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution protects individual privacy that includes the right to abortion prior to fetal viability.

Nepal’s case

Women across the world have fought against all types of abuses and become more aware of their rights. These prejudices led the world community to pass gender sensitive domestic as well as international laws. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which was adopted by the United Nations in 1979 and ratified by 189 states on 3 Sept 1981, is a treaty that is essential for assessing the government’s progress in eradicating discrimination. This treaty, which Nepal ratified in 1991, is recognized as a strong international agreement to protect gender equality and lessen violence against women.

Acknowledging CEDAW, the drafters of the 2015 Constitution of Nepal have floated ample provisions to ensure the protection of women’s rights through broad and universal principles of equality and participation. The preamble of the Constitution pledges to end all forms of discrimination based on gender. In a similar vein, the equality clauses and affirmative action clauses of the Constitution seek to ensure adequate representation of women in public life. To be specific, Article 38 provisions that all the rights relating to women shall be the fundamental rights. These rights include equal right to lineage, right to safe motherhood, and right to reproduction. In addition to this, Nepal has set aside 33 percent of seats for women in the legislature.

Article 70 envisages that “while conducting election of President and Vice-president under this Constitution, the election shall be held so as to represent different genders or communities.” Interestingly, a similar arrangement has been made for the election of Mayor and Deputy Mayor of the municipality. In the case of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representative, one of them must be a woman and so is the case with the Chairperson and Vice-chairperson of the National Assembly.  

This arrangement endeavors to press forward gender sensitive laws and policies. The reservation benefits ensured to women are there to supplement the principle of proportional inclusion.

The inclusivity and diversity are the core focus of the 2015 constitution,” argues Prof Bipin Adhikari in his book, Salient Features of the Constitution of Nepal, 2015.

Way forward

The traditional ideas of society, culture and rights have undergone a significant change the world over. While there is still more to be done to protect women’s rights, there has been significant progress toward this end.

Change happens gradually. Nepal’s Constitution gives the government an enhanced role to establish and enact initiatives, programs and regulations that will safeguard and advance the rights of women and children. A beginning in the right direction is having one-third representation of women at legislative spectrum.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Democracy is something that would give the weak the same chance as the strong.” Nepal’s constitution contains progressive provisions that support the cause of women. But passing fair rules without enforcing them in the letter and spirit would only be cosmetic.  Prof Adhikari in his book, From Exclusion to Inclusion: Crafting a new legal regime in Nepal rightly observes: Nepal’s journey towards inclusion depends, to a great extent, on the quality of democracy and constitutionalism it will achieve on the foundation of its constitution.

Summing up, the mere glorification of the laws and celebration of International Women’s Day (without implementing rules) would be a mockery of democracy.