Why an Intersectional Approach to Gender Quotas is a Must: An Example from Nepal

Publication Date: 
16 May 2017

News Type:

By Jessica Huber, Senior Gender Specialist

Evidence that supports the positive impact of gender quotas in political representation is mounting, and the debate has shifted from “do they work?” to “what else is needed?” There is agreement in scholarship and practice that gender quotas require enforcement mechanisms, incentives and accompanying action and activities to produce gender equality in political leadership. One challenge in today’s discussion of quotas, and gender equality more broadly, is the treatment of women as a monolith. The rise in discussions about intersectional feminism, a concept developed by UCLA Professor Kimberle Crenshaw, is a global trend, perhaps recently most visible as a deliberate inclusion strategy of the Women’s March on Washington. Women have unique experiences because of their race, class, religion, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. How does this diversity play a role in implementing gender quotas?

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) recently conducted a Violence Against Women in Elections (VAWIE) Assessment in Nepal to analyze the potential challenges that create and exacerbate incidents of violence against women in elections, including the local-level elections in May and June. Intersectionality surfaced during discussions about the status of women, and its challenges surfaced in discussions on gender quotas.

Issues of gender equality and women’s political participation cut across all segments of the very diverse Nepali society, where gender, caste, geography, disability, age and ethnicity impact an individual’s standing. Whether they are Madhesi from the Terai region or Dalit from anywhere in Nepal, women face gender discrimination and inequality. Dalit women and women from lower castes clearly suffer extraordinary challenges based on the continued weight placed on caste in Nepali society. Muslim women must balance conservative religious practice in their homes and communities with civic engagement.

Women with disabilities are confronted by social stigma, discrimination, physical barriers and lack of accessible information and services. Their double marginalization (or multiple marginalization if they are from an ethnic or religious minority or lower caste) places enormous burdens on their everyday life. The rural/urban divide in Nepal places distinct demands on women’s experiences in society, especially when the nature of their work may make it more challenging, such as migrant, domestic and factory workers. “There is no voice of the rural woman,” one respondent to the VAWIE Assessment said. Women who are single, widowed or divorced navigate these challenges in a patriarchal society that demands male family members in decision-making roles, which makes carrying out even ordinary tasks more difficult.

When the VAWIE Assessment focused on the May-June local elections, the gender quota was hailed as an important achievement. One respondent exclaimed, “Women are curious and excited about the upcoming election and quota … 13,000 women are about to be elected!” However, how the quota specifically handles diversity among women political leaders reveals that it could lead to potential cracks in unity among Nepali women.

The Local Level Election Act of 2017 requires that one ward member must be a woman and one ward member must be a Dalit woman, so at minimum two out of five members of a ward committee will be women. Several VAWIE Assessment respondents expressed concern over the decision to include a Dalit woman in one of the two seats reserved for women at the ward level of local government. “Why not one of the other three seats?” one woman asked. Another asked, “What happens if there is not a Dalit woman in that ward?” As of May 3, 11 days before the first round of voting, Dalit women were absent from the ballot in approximately 70 wards. The gender quota with the Dalit women inclusion measure was mandated to improve the representation of one of the most invisible groups of women in Nepali society, but it may also have the adverse effect of singling them out.

As is often the case with marginalization, efforts to empower marginalized communities can instead create scrutiny or even backlash and further discrimination. In this case, women in Nepal generally feel limited by the designation of only two of the five ward seats. That one of these seats is reserved for a Dalit woman may be producing the feeling that one of the two seats for women is being taken away, especially in the cases where there are no Dalit women candidates. The question above about designating one of the other three seats for a Dalit woman provokes a sense of competition and reveals a potential lack of appreciation for women with multiple identities or layers of marginalization. This could become a source of division that detracts from the overall effort to reduce inequality in political leadership. Further still, adding layers of social inclusion for some groups also begs the question, what about other marginalized women? One VAWIE Assessment respondent asked, “Why aren’t there reserved seats for women with disabilities?”

There are many approaches to supporting intersectional gender equality and women’s empowerment. In Nepal, in addition to enforcing the legal framework and institutional responses, it would be wise to bolster the women’s movement. A history of an active and informed civil society led by women is an excellent source to create momentum and support for gender quotas and gender equality. Groups like the Inter-Party Women Political Alliance are key leaders who could build bridges not only within Nepal’s highly politicized environment but with women civil society leaders as well.

Perhaps most critically, efforts should be made to regularly convene women’s rights activists from various backgrounds, including substantial representation and engagement from Dalit women and other historically marginalized communities including Madhesi, Muslim and indigenous women, women with disabilities and LGBTI women. Convening women with a breadth of priorities and experiences will generate familiarity and respect among them, as well as mutually beneficial strategies for achieving gender equality, including the successful implementation of gender quotas.

As with Nepal, diversity among women should be acknowledged and incorporated into the adoption of gender quotas and other affirmative action strategies around the world. This effort cannot be a one-off gesture, however. Rather, policymakers and women leaders must carry out a series of deliberate and inclusive efforts to diversify political participation over time.