Caste discrimination and the practice of untouchability by the upper caste in her village pushed Laxmi Maya Pariyar towards politics. She took this step believing that only politics could bring an end to such social discrimination. Laxmi became a member of the Student Union affiliated to Nepali Congress in 1991 when she was only 14 years old. Her grandmother, Ichhamaya Tailor, was actively involved in politics and inspired her to join. In 2001, Laxmi took out membership of the District Trade Union affiliated to the Nepali Congress. She has been working as a district member of the Nepali Congress since 2003, and as a central member of the Youth Force (Tarun Dal) since 2004.
Before being a Constituent Assembly member, what were you involved in?
From class nine, I was involved in Women’s Rehabilitation Center (WOREC) and advocated family planning issues. I then joined Chelibeti club – a cooperative that redistributed money collected from women in the form of micro-finance loans to other women to enable them to start small businesses. After that, I worked with the Child Welfare Committee for Human Rights and educated girls who dropped out of school before completing their education – counseling them and providing training. Before joining the Constituent Assembly, I was a Dalit activist with Action Aid Nepal. I’ve also worked with UNICEF in their paralegal district research group where I empowered women through paralegal trainings. In 2003, I started my own organization Dalit Network Udaypur using a rights-based approach to provide education for girls, specifically targeting readmission for dropouts.
Within the CA, I’m a Critical Area Coordinator in the Human Rights and Peace Committee where they focused on nonviolence, democracy, HR, during the state of emergency when the king seized power. I led a lot of demonstrations and was arrested for civil disobedience. I lobbied for democratic reform within the government from a local level. The committees I’m involved in are Labor, Finance and getting grassroots input into the content of the constitution.
Could you tell us about a woman who has impacted you during your work or outside work?
I learned the fact that I should work from the community. In the Dalit community that I’m from, there is a belief that girls shouldn’t go out and it was within this context that I started thinking what would happen if women went out. My colleagues inspire me, especially Sapana Pradhan Malla and Anjana Shakya who taught me that advocating for women’s rights is hard work, but worth it.
When did you start working as a politician?
In 1991 when I was studying in class eight, I started working in Nebi Sangh (the students’ union affiliated with the Nepal Congress Party) as a regional member, helping with publicity and attending rallies. That was my first step into politics and from class eight itself I thought of entering politics. I can’t remember a specific person telling me that politics was necessary and important, and initially only joined because one of my friends was in it.
When I first started politics, I knew that caste-based discrimination was a huge problem, but didn’t know how to end it at the time. Within politics, many people have asked me why I didn’t join the Maoist party because there’s no caste-based discrimination there, but I have stayed in Congress because I believe I need to work within the place where the discrimination exists in order to change it. Discrimination within the party has decreased a lot now that other members have seen my work as a Dalit activist.
You just talked about caste discrimination. In our Constituent Assembly, we have 33% gender quota for women, and on top of that, Dalits are in the minority. How difficult is it to be both a Dalit and a woman in this context?
Despite being in a good position, being a Dalit affects how people view me. While there is less direct, blatant discrimination, I still have to face it indirectly. For example, when I went to a village in the eastern district Udaypur a couple years ago along with three other CA members ( two high-caste men and another Dalit woman), I wasn’t allowed within the house of our local hosts. They made me and the other female Dalit CA member stay outside on the porch while the men were invited inside, using the excuse that we must be tired so they wanted to make us more comfortable by serving us dinner outside. When night came and they made us walk 200-300 meters and sleep outside, I realized that the real reason they wouldn’t invite us into their house was because we were Dalits.
What are some of the obstacles to leadership that are unique to women in Nepal?
Firstly, there are obstacles that come from the family itself. Even when a girl tries to go out, many questions are raised about who she is going with, how many males are accompanying her and what relation do they have with her. If she returns home late, that’s another reason to ask her many questions. She is always reminded of morality. Females are expected to always fulfill their responsibility whether it is as a daughter, a wife or as a mother. Then there is the society. We know that politics is not a 10-5 job. So, there are times when we have to go out, travel to distant places and even return home late. If people see female politicians working freely and traveling wherever their work demands, people assume that they might be divorced or have problems in the family. I had an experience like that too. People cannot accept the fact that women can work as well as have a good family and that family can be supportive of women going out.
What do you think about the 33% quota? Should it be maintained in the future?
197 women out of 601 CA members is not that bad, but I think the quota should be raised to 50%, or at least more opportunities provided for women. We need to be equal to men. Many politicians in Nepal say that women own half the sky, but what is there in the sky? We cannot build houses or walk or do anything in the sky. I always say women need half the earth, not the sky. Giving positions to women without any real responsibility/ authority is common practice here and has almost become systemic. What’s the use of a position without authority? There’s been a trend of women being given posts like deputy minister or vice president and never trusted with offices that have decision-making power. Enough of second-in-command positions. I’ve seen this even in the nonprofit sector as well, where many boards of have five males in major decision-making positions and then two token females as members.
What do you think can be done overcome this tokenism when it comes to female representation and actually empower women?
First of all, women need to realize this is happening and speak out. There needs to be a bigger emphasis on education and more opportunities available for all girls and women across Nepal.
Just like me, there are many girls and women who are never asked what they want to do. They are never asked about their aims or goals. They are just taught to stay at home and work. To change this, a girl needs rights: the right to free education, ansha (right to inherit property) and bansha (matrilineal citizenship rights). There should be an inclusive constitution where all women’s rights are realized and there should be change in mindset of people, a change that education alone cannot bring about.
What was the reaction from your family and friends when you decided to join politics? Were they supportive?
They were quite supportive since my mother was the first person I heard about politics from. She used to tell me that if anyone wanted to join politics, they should join and support the Congress party because even during the revolution, they always worked for the poor. I have definitely struggled a lot during my political career, but even my friends have supported me as well.
There are many jobs that are stereotyped as for women such as: teaching, receptionist, nursing etc. Out of all these, why did you choose to become a politician?
You remind me of an event in my life. I was offered a teacher’s post in a secondary school in Udayapur after I completed my SLC. But I didn’t want to become a teacher because I thought I would get stuck in that position in the village and spend my entire life raising children and looking after a family. I then thought a lot about the future and decided not to work as the teacher. I also did a nursing course actually, but there was a lot to fight for like caste discrimination and if I didn’t do it, who would? Everyone should come out of the space that women are confined to and fight for gender equality.
What is the achievement you are most proud of?
If I hadn’t struggled within a society that treated Dalits as “untouchables” and especially didn’t allow Dalit women to come out of the four walls of the house, I would have been the mother of four children and a housewife. But I decided to fight against this caste discrimination that made Dalits worse than animals. People take their pets inside their houses but Dalits are not even allowed inside. I always wondered why humans can treat other humans worse than animals, and because of this, decided to act as a Dalit activist and providing education and training to other Dalits and fighting for them. I am a member of National Dalit Network and I have an organization: Dalit Samaj. I think it’s a matter of pride to be recognised an inspiring woman in the community. I feel proud when I hear people praising about my work and achievement to my parents.
How did you feel when you first joined as a CA member? What were your hopes?
I was nominated from my district without objection. At that time, I felt like all my struggles were successful. I felt energetic and lively. I thought this is the time for me to make a ‘New Nepal’, that is free and equal. I remember being really very happy and excited on the first day to see all the 601 members wearing their cultural dresses. I thought then that this was how I could work for education, health and youth issues. I felt proud and capable of creating a bright new future for our country.
How do you feel women are received by men within the CA? Are they listened to and respected?
When women talk, men listen. But it’s getting the time to speak that can be difficult as women mostly have to request an allotted amount of time before speaking, whereas men are the ones usually selected to speak on issues. Also, the impact of men’s speech is usually far greater than women, even if they’re speaking about the same issue with the same passion. The media covers men speaking and does not emphasize women speaking in the assembly, even if they are of the same age and have had similar experiences. I think this has a negative impact especially with rural audiences who think women are not speaking or working at all because they don’t receive any media coverage.
The deadline for the Nepal’s new constitution is coming soon – what rights are you working on right now for women in the new constitution?
I am working to make an inclusive constitution that incorporates women’s rights. We are working for girls’ education, emphasizing the importance of free higher education. We are also working for reproductive rights for women and about getting citizenship through mothers. The citizenship rights haven’t been finalized yet. The major rights I’ve been working on are education, health and employment for girls and women.
What advice do you want to give to young girls aspiring to become a politician?
Young people think politics is a dirty game and many don’t want to be a politician. Being a leader and a politician can be frustrating at times but politics is the base of the nation. It is only through politics that we can bring real change and development in our country. It is necessary to join politics and make a better Nepal.