Practitioner Insights: what does it take to empower women leadership? Lessons from Nepal

How to address the problem of proxy leadership


Seema Rajouria is a freelance consultant who has worked on various projects with Oxford Policy Management. She is experienced in sub national governance, social inclusion, peacebuilding and communications. Seema also led fieldwork and data collection for several governance projects in Nepal.

Alexandra Nastase is a senior public sector governance specialist with OPM. She has extensive experience of working with governments on public sector performance, policy execution and state capability. In the past years, Alexandra has been working in Nepal on subnational governance, federalism, building state capacity, and political economy analysis.

Nepal is celebrated on the world stage as an example of gender empowerment, but the narrative at home is somewhat different and the context is rapidly changing. Sometimes, women representatives are mostly seen as proxy leaders, or simply making up a quota. Many of them currently have a role, but no de facto power to influence decisions at the community level. Using findings from our fieldwork, we explore the main challenges women leaders face in Nepal, as well as their views about what type of support they need to move away from the perception and sometimes reality of being a ‘quota leader’.  

Nepal’s local government election results marked a turning point in Nepal’s political fabric and a significant step towards women empowerment. Nepal stepped into federalism with 33.5% of women parliamentarians in the two houses of the Federal Parliament, well above the global average of 23.8%. In local elections, women now hold over 40% of the seats – helped in part by a legislative framework that mandated that political parties nominate mayors/chairpersons and deputy mayors/chairpersons considering gender balance. While this unprecedented high number represents a significant success, it remains true that women occupy 91% of the deputy positions, while 98% of the mayors or chairpersons appointed were men.

As pioneers, these women elected representatives need to overcome systemic challenges. Their most significant problem is to counter the social norms that are deeply entrenched in a traditionally patriarchal system. For many, politics and public space remain purely masculine, and people are yet to be used to women in positions of power. Until then, despite substantial strides taken in women’s leadership positions, women will not be taken seriously. Also at a systemic level, these leaders are not only discriminated against because they are women, but also because most of them belong to the marginalised Dalit caste (‘the untouchables’).

With these structural impediments in mind, women still face multiple pressures to conduct their duties. First, the expectations of the citizens are moderately high regarding the positive influence of the federalism and democratic local governments on their wellbeing. Second, the governance arrangements are changing as we speak, with roles and responsibilities having to be further clarified and communicated adequately in all 753 local governments, seven provincial governments, and all central ministries and departments. To add to this uncertainty, our fieldwork showed a conflict, sometimes latent, between politicians even from the same party and between politicians and bureaucrats. At the same time, the roles deputy mayors need to play are complex. Deputy leaders are the first point of contact for service delivery at local governments. They are chairpersons of judicial, financial, and a host of other committees.

There are instances where women are reduced to a proxy leader. Women in government positions face a range of challenges that often constrain and limit their authority. Social norms that limit women’s voice and agency to changing governance structures. In many cases, women were ‘supported’ by their husbands in undertaking their responsibilities as elected leaders. The common explanation was that the women were not literate enough to be able to perform their duties. Although a majority of women representatives (66%) have had some schooling (sample survey of 190 elected women representatives), this remains a major drawback for their performance. In some cases, men were speaking during the meetings and even signing on their wives’ behalf or as complete substitution with the women elected representative at home ‘looking after the household’ and their husband replacing them in the office and doing their work. When the husband is not involved, women are still excluded from formal discussions where decisions are made or sometimes are just ignored by their colleagues, politicians, or bureaucrats. 

There were standout cases where women leaders influenced and led their communities. In most cases, women representatives are Dalit, and they are thus facing double discrimination, aggravated by the burden of a domestic role of managing the household. However, there are exceptions to the rule. Only 2% of women were elected as mayors and chairpersons. Those elected are women with strong political background who have worked in their communities for a long time. They consolidated their position in the community through an extended service to people’s welfare, and this ensured their electoral success irrespective of their parties. The women in this positions that we interviewed showed a deep sense of commitment and a clear vision of how they want to develop their palikas. They mentioned that they are affected by the stereotypical patriarchal norms on a daily basis, but have more experience in public life. Additionally, members of the community indicated that the women reps are role models for young girls in the palikas, and their success will set precedence and encourage girls to join public office and become more engaged in democratic governance.

Despite the challenges facing female leaders, those that we engaged with during our work in Nepal are eager to participate in the new governance structure. From interviews, both male and female local politicians believed that they need more training to understand their role, as well as to develop some of their technical understanding for how budgeting and annual strategic planning work, for instance. Nevertheless, what was specific to women reps was their request for less traditional capacity development activities that help them build confidence and leadership skills. The focus was on enhancing the practical skills to manage their time and the multi-layered responsibilities (from workload to continue managing the household), as well as managing conflicts and building relationships with subordinates, peers, superiors, and stakeholders.

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Moving forward, the agenda for supporting the democratic local governance in Nepal needs to place women leaders’ empowerment at its core. It is an urgent issue and challenge. Beyond the important moral and human rights considerations there are also structural questions on which the success of Nepal’s federalism project, and the democratic local governance, depends. Women are in a position of authority, and they need to be empowered so that government can function. While the government is the only one to lead the design of an enabling environment, there is a role for the international partners to support. They can strive to make a difference in loosening the traditional approaches to capacity development focused on training for better-tailored approaches that include more facilitation, coaching, and problem-driven narratives that build the much-needed confidence and leadership ability.

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