Women’s Role in the Nepalese Movement: Making a People’s Constitution

At this very moment Nepal is making a constitution through the historic Constitutional Assembly (CA). It is important to note that up till now all prior constitutions handed over to the people of Nepal were through direct intervention of oligarchs or kings. It was the historic ten years of People’s War (PW) (1996-2006) complimented with 19 days of People’s Movement (April 2006) that made it possible to bring about a free and fair CA election in April 2008 as a means to make a people’s constitution by the people themselves. It is under the leadership of Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [CPN(Maoist)] and its skillful use of a united front with various parties that the monarchy system was abolished in 2008.

The specificity of the Nepalese movement is the presence of a strong left. For this very reason the women’s movement is comparatively strong in Nepal. Women’s exploitation being deep rooted, embracing all sectors, one of the oldest and longest exploitations, from womb to tomb, is conducive to communist movements taking the lead. Of course one has to fight against patriarchal tendencies within the Communist Party or similar tendencies arising from the stage of development of the society, which ultimately find reflection on the Party or movement. But there are always rightist, ultra-leftist and eclectic middle tendencies within the Party or movement which will affect the women’s movement accordingly. Women have to fight for a correct line, which will address both the class and gender issues in correct proportion. In Nepal’s specific case we have to additionally address Dalit, regional and ethnic oppression because they are interrelated to women’s oppression.

Women’s Movement before PW

It is important to recall that the first people’s movement that took place in 1990 lasted almost 50 days and resulted in the overthrow of the “partyless” Panchayat system, a one party system run from the royal palace that had lasted for thirty years (1960-1990). During monarchical rule women’s and student’s fronts were very active as political parties were banned, and they operated through these fronts. This is in sharp contrary to most other South Asian countries where the women’s movement emerged along with independent movements against foreign rule. When the 1990 anti-monarchical movement started spreading from urban areas towards rural areas the king was forced to negotiate with the political parties. This resulted in a tri-partite agreement between the king, Nepali Congress (NC) (representing the comprador bourgeois class) and the United Left Front (representing broad reformist left parties) to arrive at a constitutional monarchical parliamentary system. The new constitution promulgated in 1990 made mandatory that all the contending Parties file a minimum of five percentage of the seats for women as a condition to contest the election. In the first 1991 election out of 205 legislatives representatives only seven women were elected.

But a second united front, a more radical, United National People’s Movement (UNPM) which also had been struggling against the Panchayat system decided to continue the struggle against the constitutional monarchical parliamentary system on the ground that only a constituent assembly election would serve the interests of the broad mass of the people. Nonetheless the underground Communist Party of Nepal (Unity Centre), [CPN(UC)] which was one of the main parties within UNPM, decided to participate in the first election through its aboveground United People’s Front (UPF). One of its main aims was to expose the contradiction between monarchy and democracy and the fallacy of a supposedly democratic Westminster parliamentary system headed by the king. It fielded 59 candidates of which there were four women candidates. Nine candidates won in the election placing the party as the third largest after the bourgeois NC and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) [CPN(UML)]. None of the UPF women candidates won.

However during the brief six years period before PW started there was a sudden growth of women’s movements pertaining to gender issues. Many independent women’s organizations and united fronts of women’s organizations started springing up. Many debates, talk programs and movements relating to women’s issues started taking place. Many women’s magazines started to appear. However taking advantage of a partial freedom of expression given by the new system, the commercializing of women (beauty-contests, pornography, blue films) started taking place openly. Women used all sorts of movements to prevent and discourage these events and tendencies. One such struggle was the successful prevention of a beauty contest in one of the five-star hotels. Women also used Teez, a traditional celebration specific to women that propagated gender oppression, as an opportunity to expose feudal patriarchal values and to propagate left ideology. It is interesting to note that Teez is a Hindu festival seeking longevity of life of husbands for married women and for seeking good husbands for unmarried women. Thus the 1990 people’s movement prepared a base for weakening the feudal patriarchal base in the country.

Focus on urban and gender issues gradually shifted to rural and class issues when CPN (UC) decided to boycott the election in the year 1994. Many false cases were charged against cadres and sympathizers in the name of suppressing “boycotters”. When, under police attack, most men fled the villages, it was women who not only had to look after household but also do work traditionally done by men, such as roofing of houses, ploughing land etc. But soon they too were hunted, harassed and raped and thus they too were forced to go underground. All these incidents created conducive ground for launching PW, which was to start on 6th Feb 1996. Meanwhile CPN(UC) was renamed as Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [CPN(Maoist)], under whose leadership PW started.

Women’s Movement during PW

The PW, which lasted for ten years from 1996 to 2006, was a phenomenal historical achievement in Nepalese history as it removed nearly 240 years of monarchy, creating a federal democratic republic in Nepal. The many thousands who joined the class war became not only class conscious, but also gender, Dalit, region and ethnic conscious.

One of the historical achievements of PW was that it made a big leap in women’s lives. They joined all the fronts; the Party, United Front and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the three instruments of revolution. For the first time women became professional whole-time revolutionaries not in tens but in hundreds, not in hundreds but in thousands! Before PW started there were only 2 women whole-timers in the then CPN (Unity Centre).

Women became professional revolutionaries by joining PLA, militias, production brigades. They became policy makers; they worked as couriers, organizers, as barefooted health workers, as radio anchors. For the first time they were taught to target the feudal state apparatus as an instrument of class and gender oppression. For the first time they were taught to fight for new democracy, a state which will do away with feudalism completely. For the first time they got the opportunity to compete on an equal footing with men combatants in war fronts. For the first time they could get married or remarried irrespective of caste, class, region and ethnicity, choosing a partner on the basis of love and ideology. For the first time the women’s mass front was not only geared to addressing women’s oppression but also to producing red and expert women for running cottage industries, producing soldiers and leaders for the Party, militias and the PLA, running communes, co-operatives etc. Similarly by associating with the masses at the grass roots level, the new women leaders became sensitized at a deep level to regional, ethnic, class and caste oppression.

What made them more confident was that in the base areas they were able to practice what they preached in villages declared “woman model village” where women practiced special rights, exercised equal rights to parental property, where it was forbidden to beat women, where women were involved in constructing trekking trails, martyr gates, running people’s court etc. The nineteen days people’s movement of April 2006, which was mainly limited to Katmandu and the few other major urban areas, helped in instilling the agendas brought forward by CPN (Maoist) among the urban masses. It prepared a wider ground for removal of the absolute monarchy.

Participation of Women in making the Constitution

The present peace process which started in 2006 and continued till today is the result of the “12 point understanding “ reached between seven political parties and CPN (Maoist) in the year 2006. The essence of the 12 point understanding was that it united all democratic parties against the king, preparing a base for restructuring the state and ending feudal structures. The peace process gave the opportunity to CPN (M) to institutionalize the issues they had been raising and practicing during PW, namely that of institutionalizing democracy and the republic through CA election, and pursuing a federalism based on ethnicity, region and other factors.

The hallmark of the present constitution making process is that CPN (Maoist) has been taking the initiative in every stage of the process, be it making interim constitution, be it forcing other parties to participate in CA election, be it making sure CA committees submit their constitution draft in time.

Thus, the Preamble in the Interim Constitution of Nepal (2007) reflects the issues raised in the PW: “Having determined upon the progressive restructuring of the state in order to resolve the existing problems of the country relating to class, caste, region and gender…”

A crucial aspect of the historic Constituent Assembly election, which took place in 2008, is that it adopted a mixed form of election. By using First Past the Post (FPTP) together with Proportional Representation (PR) in the election system it was able to bring inclusiveness and proportionate representation of the various oppressed groups present in Nepal. At the time of CA election the election commission had stipulated mandatory filing of candidates for the PR seats on the basis of 50%-50% male and female candidacies, with regional, caste and ethnic groups required similarly to be represented among party candidates, 31.2% for Madhesi, 13% for Dalits, 37.8 for Janajatis (ethnic groups), 4% for backward region and 30.2% to others. Similarly the interim constitution stipulated that a minimum of one-third of the total number of candidates nominated shall be women, taking together the number of candidates based on FPTP & PR.

Today there are 601 CA members, out of which 240 members were elected on the basis of FPTP, 335 on the basis of PR while 26 are nominated by the main Parties with the view of incorporating those communities which had been left out.

The CPN (Maoist) won the highest number of CA members (both male and female): 120 CA through FPTP and 100 through PR. Second came the NC which has 37 CA through FPTP and 73 through PR. And third is the CPN (UML), which has 33 through FPTP and 73 through PR. The total number of Maoist CA women members elected via both FPTP & PR far exceeds the number in the other main parties.

Table 1. Women elected in three major parties

Women elected CPN(M) NC UML
FPTP 24 2 1
PR 50 36 35

Samudayik Sarathi Nepal/ 2008/ Members of the Constituent Assembly/ Kathmandu, Nepal: Samudayik Sarathi

Only Maoist women were elected as CA members through FPTP who were Dalit, ethnic, backward region, or Madhesi, that is from the minority and discriminated against communities. Similarly the same trend is seen in the case of PR (see Table no.3) thus helping to make CA relatively more inclusive and proportionate.

Table 2. Women elected through FPTP from minority communities in three major parties

Party Madhesi Janajati Dalit Backward region
CPN(M) 1 8 2 0
NC 0 0 0 0
UML 0 0 0 0

Samudayik Sarathi Nepal/ 2008/ Members of the Constituent Assembly/ Kathmandu, Nepal: Samudayik Sarathi

Only 30 women CA members won in the 240 FPTP constituencies. Thus it is precisely because of the PR system that women came to be substantially represented in the CA. In fact the proportional representation/mixed form of election has indirectly forced the non-Maoist Parties to adopt class, gender, ethnic, region and Dalit agenda within their organizational structure and programme.

Table 3. Women elected through PR from minority communities in three major parties

Party Madhesi Janajati Dalit Backward region
CPN(M) 17 18 6 2
NC 10 13 5 1
UML 10 12 4 1

Samudayik Sarathi Nepal/ 2008/ Members of the Constituent Assembly/ Kathmandu, Nepal: Samudayik Sarathi

Out of a total of 197 women members in the CA, Maoists elected 74-by far the largest number among the parties. This number has increased as many smaller Parties within the CA have joined CPN(Maoist) making it now the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [UCPN(M)].

Also interesting is that among the 24 Maoist women elected in constituencies through FPTP, two belong to the Dalit caste. This is of historical importance because no woman Dalit had ever previously won in a direct election in Nepal. Similarly nine women CA members belong to discriminated against ethnic groups, another great historical feat (see Table 2). It is a matter of pride that eight women CA members belong to martyr families of the PW. And four CA couples won election through FPTP. This has also lead to one couple both of whom won through FPTP joining government in capacity of full ministers, something rarely seen in the world. Also today the vice-chairperson of the CA is a woman belonging to UCPN (Maoist). Similarly the whip for the Maoist Party is a woman. It is equally interesting to note that the two seats won by NC and one seat won by UML through FPTP belong to high caste Hindu Brahmins.

Seven women chairpersons head different legislative and constitutional committees, three belonging to the UCPN (Maoist). Similarly the second highest vote received in a FPTP constituency went to a Maoist woman candidate, the highest having been bagged by a male Maoist candidate. Most interesting is that young district level Maoist women defeated veteran, seasoned central level senior men candidates of other parties.

Federalism is another important agenda of the present constitution making process that reflects women’s pressure on the organs of the state. The interim constitution calls for a CA “to carry out an inclusive, democratic and progressive restructuring of the state by eliminating its existing form of centralized and unitary structure in order to address the problems related to women, Dalits, indigenous tribes (Adivasi Janajati), Madhesis, oppressed and minority communities and other disadvantaged groups, by eliminating class, caste, language, gender, cultural, religious and regional discrimination,” so as “ to enable Madhesi, Dalits, indigenous ethnic groups (Adivasi Janajati), women, laborers, farmers, the physically impaired, disadvantaged classes and disadvantaged regions to participate in all organs of the State structure on the basis of proportional inclusion…” These goals have strategic implication, and reflect the Maoist analysis of women’s liberation, as women are an oppressed community within the oppressions of caste, class, ethnicity and region.

The Maoist CA members have taken the lead in advancing strategic issues pertaining to women in the draft committees of different CA constitutional committees. It is on this basis that the new constitution is going to be made.


The distinguishing feature of PW in Nepal was that it raised vertical issues relating to class issues at the same time it pursued horizontal issues such as caste, ethnic, gender and regional oppression. To achieve this we Maoists are trying to arrive at Nepal-specific federalism based on nationality. Today class war is being waged in different forms. In short there is a big struggle between those forces wedded to the old feudal and comprador mode of production and those who are struggling for new nationalist capitalist mode of production as a stage on the road to communism.

Women’s liberation is at present at a crossroads, it has the possibility of taking a leap forward if restructuring of the state takes place in line with new mode of production. But at the same time it has the possibility of backfiring if–by manipulation in the name of identity, ethnicity, region–divisive forces are mobilized by the class and national enemy to preserve old social habits and culture, which are detrimental to women’s emancipation.

Today Maoist women have not only to be skilled in street protests, they have to be equally inquisitive and eloquent in legislative activities and also skillful in shaping the restructure of government organs. Similarly Maoist women have the opportunity to know what in essence constitutes a bourgeois state and make sure the new restructured state serves the people. At present the Party needs to intervene in the state from both the top and the bottom, particularly from the base by keeping people well organized and vigilant so that they are on their toes if a people based constitution is sabotaged. They should be kept ready to struggle at every juncture of such sabotage. Those who are not happy with CA election results that made the Maoists the largest Party, those who want to stick with the old feudal unitary system, are obstructing both army integration and the constitution making process. Already there are signs of increasing violence against women, reports of women attacked as witches, Dalit women forced to eat feces. To blame are the forces seeking to ignore the verdict of CA election, and as the obstructed peace process drags on the results are escalatingprice rise and rising insecurity.

Today Nepalese women, particularly the Maoist women, have the opportunity to become holistic. They raised gender issues before PW started and put into practice their response to class and gender issues during the ten years of PW. And today they are vigorously raising the “inclusive and proportionate” issue during the constitution making process. We must continuously struggle not only to make a people’s republic constitution but also to implement it.

Today’s struggle is whether to make a new Nepal with Nepal-specific federalism addressing all class, gender, Dalit, ethnic and regional issues. To make a constitution which is anti-feudalist and anti-imperialist. To make a constitution which not only protects the right of peasants and workers but also accepts their leadership.Or to remain stuck with the old Nepal, with the old unitary state plus a few cosmetic changes.

Similarly today’s struggle is whether to make women the vehicle of status quo or to make women the vehicle of forward looking change. The challenge for Maoist women today is to defend the achievements we acquired during PW, to apply it in practice creatively, and to develop it in order to prepare a higher level for the women’s movement.


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  3. Samudayik Sarathi Nepal/ 2008/ Members of the Constituent Assembly/ Kathmandu, Nepal: Samudayik Sarathi.
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