Co-authors: Pallavi Payal, Independent Researcher, Nepal and Punam Yadav, IRDR Centre for Gender and Disaster, UCL
Amidst this global pandemic and the initial chaos, there is an increasing attention to examine the different impacts of Covid-19, including the gendered impacts. On June 5th, 2020, the IRDR Centre for Gender and Disaster co-hosted a webinar with Pallavi Payal, an independent researcher from Nepal, which aimed to explore the lived experiences of women political leaders in Nepal in the time of Covid-19. It is becoming more evident that countries with women in leadership are doing much better, compared to those with men as heads of the state, especially in terms of managing the global pandemic and minimising the risks to people. The aim here is not to compare Nepal with New Zealand or Finland but to explore the contributions of women leaders at the local level during this pandemic.
Nepal has progressed significantly in recent years in terms of increasing women’s participation in politics. Currently numbers of women at the local government have been instrumental in managing the current crisis, despite many constraints, from quarantine management to the management of migrant returnees from India and abroad. Province 2 in particular is one of the hardest hits due to its open border with India, which has added additional challenges and responsibilities to the local and the provincial governments.
In situations like this, leaders and service providers are often labelled as ‘heroes’, if they are managing well or demonised, if they aren’t. However, what gets missed in this binary between the good and the bad leadership is the challenges that these political leaders face, both at home and at work in the times of crisis, such as Covid-19. Therefore, we wanted to have this conversation with women leaders from the local and the provincial governments. Therefore, we invited seven speakers to share their experiences. However, one could not join due to internet issues in her rural municipality. Out of the six speakers, who included Deputy Mayors and Provincial Assembly members, five of them were women and one was a male Provincial Assembly member. The aim of inviting a male politician was to understand how women’s challenges were perceived by their male colleagues as well as to help build support for them. The number of views on Facebook has reached over 2.9K, which suggests a lot of interest on the topic.
Due to the constitutional provision of a mandatory quota for women in Nepal, their participation in politics has increased to 41% in the local government. The majority of them, however, had no previous training in politics. Therefore, it has been a steep learning curve for many of them. It was only a little more than two years since their time in the office, when they were still trying to understand their roles and responsibilities, the country was struck by the current pandemic.
Nepal went into lockdown on the 24th of March 2020 with immediate effect, which created a lot of chaos and fear among people. Its capital city, Kathmandu, has a huge migrant population. As many of them thought that rural areas are safer than staying in the city, due to the lack of knowledge when the pandemic started, they made their journey back home, mostly on foot. Stories of people, including pregnant women and children, making their journey on foot for hundreds of miles were heart-breaking. Amidst this, migrant workers from various parts of the world, including India were coming home. Province 2 was also receiving a large number of returnees. The lack of planning from the government across all levels meant chaos for the local leaders without the means to support. Therefore, they started doing what they could in their own capacity. Although the local leaders are dealing with a number of challenges, women representatives had to face additional challenges due to their gender roles, some of which we aim to outline in this blog.
Women changed subject position from their previous roles to now as leaders. However, people’s perception about their gender roles has not changed. Women leaders at the webinar said that having to manage both home and work has been a challenge. They said, since the local government is the closest authority to the people, it is bound to have more responsibilities and challenges. Women leaders have suffered the burden of dual responsibilities. Their responsibilities at home have increased because of everyone staying at home, which meant more cooking, cleaning and caretaking. Likewise, workload has increased at work due to the pandemic. Ms Salma Khatoon, the Deputy Mayor of Pokhariya Municipality, shared her fear of contracting the virus and giving it to her family due to the nature of her work. She said she has a young child. However, she has been going out to monitor the quarantine facilities. All the migrant returnees and those who have tested positive are put into government-run quarantine facilities that have been poorly managed and overcrowded. Going to these places without any PPE means high risk of contracting the virus. She said she is scared of contracting the virus from the quarantine facilities and brining it home. Another speaker, Ms. Sadhana Jha, the Deputy Mayor of Rajbiraj Municipality also shared similar experiences.
Provincial Assembly member, Manish Suman said that while the male representatives have challenges too, one cannot ignore that women have additional challenges due to their responsibilities at home. They don’t get concession in their household responsibilities even though they have the same responsibilities as male representatives.
Work of Judicial Committee affected
One of the main responsibilities of the deputy mayor is leading the Judicial Committee, which involves dealing with social issues in their constituencies. However, the Judicial Committee has been badly affected by Covid-19. Evidence suggests increase in domestic violence. However, the Deputy mayor can’t meet the victims. They are still trying to support people. Salma Khatoon said she has been handling cases over the phone. Sometimes she has to meet in person. Even though she advises people to come in a small group, sometimes 20 people turn up, which increases the risks.
In addition to similar challenges faced by local representatives, Sadhana Jha added that not everything is possible via phone or internet because access to internet is difficult in rural areas. The increased responsibilities, due to this global pandemic, have exposed the local representatives to a higher risk. Provincial Assembly member, Manju Yadav, said that people in the villages are still not aware about physical distancing or even Covid-19. Manish Suman added that the idea of physical distancing or even washing hands so regularly is usually taken negatively in the villages and there is a chance of offending people if you tell them to do so.
Men in quarantine, women suffer at home
The local representatives pointed out that there are more men in quarantine but there are also women with their breastfeeding babies. Women representatives have been very active in supporting these women. In a male dominated society like Nepal where men are the breadwinners and women are the caretakers, when men are quarantined, all responsibilities fall on women’s shoulders. Deputy Mayor of Gaur, Kiran Thakur, said women come with their concerns to the women representatives. Women who have their relatives stuck at the border request the women representatives to help. As women representatives, Thakur feels that she should listen to their concerns and help them. However, the lack of resources means a lot of stress for her. Despite the challenges, women representatives said they are doing what they can to support women and advocating with their colleagues, Provincial and Federal governments for more support for women.
Relief Distribution and Women’s need
The women leaders also pointed out that the relief packages are handled by the Mayors and the Ward Chairpersons, who are mostly men, but the needs of women are not considered. Therefore, women come to them asking for help. They also said that women representatives are not consulted or informed before making any decisions on relief distribution. Nonetheless, they have to support people in their constituencies. Salma Khatoon said long before the directives from the Federal government, she suggested that the local government should provide nutritious food packages to pregnant women. However, her municipality ignored her proposal. She said the culture of ignoring and excluding women representatives has continued but they are navigating their own ways to fight against the exclusion.
All the panellists said that one of the main challenges to manage the current crisis is the lack of data. They said they don’t know how many people have entered Nepal via open border, which makes it difficult to manage the spread of the virus. The panellists also raised other challenges, such as the lack of enough financial support from the federal government and the lack of coordination between the governments. They also said NGOs working in the region should divert their funding to support the people impacted by Covid-19.
Although Covid-19 has brought a lot of challenges to the women leaders at the local level, they think that this pandemic has also been an opportunity to work closely with the people in their constituencies. They have had the opportunity to prove themselves through their work, which has helped build trust with the local people. They have also learned to use Zoom. They have access to the outside world through Zoom and the outside world also has to them.
This webinar was livestreamed via Facebook. Please click here.