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POLITICS-NEPAL: Women Push for Space in Peace Plans

Marty Logan

KATHMANDU, Dec 14 2006 (IPS) - Government and Maoist leaders holding high-level talks to finalise Nepal’s interim constitution have discovered they have one thing in common: none of them can say that at least a third of their party workers are women.

That was the message passed to activist Shobha Gautam from a source inside the talks, which entered their second day Thursday. After the counting of cadres was done, leaders dropped a suggestion that only parties where women make up at least 33 percent of political workers should be able to register with the Election Commission, said Gautam in an interview Wednesday.

“No, we’re not frustrated. The leaders do not listen (to women activists) but that just means we have to point out even more strongly their weaknesses; it’s our duty,” added Gautam, head of Shantimalika, a network of women’s peace groups, in a roundtable interview at the office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Nepali women have been hammering on the doors of political power since soon after the revived parliament proclaimed May 30 that one-third of seats on all state bodies would be reserved for women. Weeks later the government named a committee to draft an interim constitution – five men, no women – and a ceasefire monitoring body – 29 men, two women.

The activists then turned to the United Nations office in Nepal’s capital for help. It has centred its activities on UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the document that directs governments, and the world body itself, to ensure women participate fully in preventing and resolving conflicts and in peace-building. It also stipulates that all post-conflict activities take women’s specific needs into account.

That does not simply mean appointing women to committees in equal numbers to men, says Sanam Anderlini, UNFPA technical advisor. “It’s about recognising that if you want to do it right, you include women. That, for example, when you’re collecting arms, if you want to find out where all the socket bombs are hidden, you have to talk to women,” she told IPS.

Nepal’s Maoists stopped tossing their homemade socket bombs when their leaders called a ceasefire to the 10-year uprising soon after the “people’s movement” forced King Gyanendra to give up direct power in April. The government soon reciprocated and peace talks began weeks later.

In November, negotiations culminated in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). It lays out the path to lasting peace: an interim constitution, followed by an interim government to replace the existing parliament. Next June, elections will be held to a constituent assembly that will draft a new constitution, deciding the future of the monarchy, among other things.

While Nepal’s peace process since the “people’s movement” has used a “classic top-down approach” that excludes women, and civil society as a whole, Anderlini is somewhat optimistic that women’s needs will be provided for. “This is the first time we see a concerted approach (to implement Resolution 1325 in a post-conflict situation) and a dialogue going on,” she said.

But Minister of State for Women, Children and Social Welfare, Urmila Aryal, is cautious. “Of course it’s great support when (UN officials) pressure the government about these issues. But these feelings should come from Nepali women first…they need to apply more pressure, make more noise. Sometimes when I’m in cabinet meetings I feel like I’m (pushing this agenda) alone,” she told IPS on Thursday.

Nepali women could help by grooming potential young women leaders and creating more powerful, inclusive networks, added the minister.

UNFPA Nepal Representative Junko Sazaki says her office and the UN Peace Support Working Group on 1325 are working hard to spread awareness about the resolution throughout Nepal. “Our challenge is to include local women’s groups and make them aware,” added Sazaki, a member of the UN assessment mission in Kathmandu this week preparing for the future UN Peace Support Mission. Existing networks of women’s organisations, such as the nation’s 48,000 Female Community Health Volunteers, could be employed to spread information about 1325, she suggested.

The slow pace of setting up the UN mission that will monitor the locked arms of the two fighting forces is being blamed by some here for the interim constitution stalemate. Maoist negotiators are pushing for the document to be signed so they can be quickly included in a new government, while Prime Minister Girija Koirala is arguing that the former rebels cannot enter parliament until UN monitors have taken up their positions.

Already there are reports that some Maoist women are leaving the 28 cantonments that are slowly being erected across the country to house the former fighters. That would echo experiences in other countries, where rebel women are excluded before the formal reintegration process begins, and then miss out on government support, said Anderlini.

“It happens everywhere and it’d be a real shame if it happens here…if women are leaving the camps, how on earth are we to find them? In part, our challenge has been to say to the Maoists: ‘it’s in your interest to see that these things (provided for women) happen’. We need to develop a partnership with them on this,” added Anderlini.

The interim government will include all current members – minus supporters of the king – plus 73 seats for the Maoists and 48 for representatives of society at large. Aryal said she has suggested reserving 33 percent of the latter seats for women but “my leaders have not fully committed”.

Maoist leaders say women will make up 40 percent of their contingent in the temporary government. That will provide “great pressure”, according to Aryal, who added, “Now the iron is hot – it’s time to hammer it. If people feel tired and are passive, nothing will be accomplished because the party leaders are very conservative.”

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