These women ran for office to protect Nepal’s forests. They won.
For Nepal, 2017 was a year of firsts.
Since 1995, the country had been embroiled in civil war, shuffling through prime ministers and royal heads of state until a peace agreement was finally reached in 2006.
A new 2015 constitution established federalism, but it wasn’t until 2017 that Nepalis had the opportunity to vote in the country’s first elections since the end of the war. They turned out in huge numbers: millions, or about 65% of the eligible population, voted in the general elections of November and December 2017. (This was on par with voter turnout in Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Canada.)
But earlier that summer, change was already taking place at another, perhaps even more powerful level.
Nepal’s new constitution sought to reshape the country’s political equilibrium. Calling for an “equitable society based on plurality and equality” and “inclusive representation and identity,” it created three tiers of government: federal, provincial, and—arguably most important—local. Under this new system, decision-making power would be wielded not only by the central government, but by villages and municipalities.
Nepal’s first ever local elections took place across multiple months: in May, June, and September 2017. The stakes were high, and so were the numbers: 35,041 representatives would be seated across multiple levels of local government, from mayors to ward committee members.
More than 14,000 women won those seats.
More than 600 represented the very communities that are saving Nepal’s forests.
For Nepal’s Indigenous Peoples and local communities, the country’s abundant forests aren’t just a source of sustenance and survival. They’re also a vital natural resource that communities have guarded and conserved for generations.
As of 2016, forests made up nearly 45 percent of Nepal’s total area—and counting. It’s often cited as a “success story” in forestry and conservation circles, a paragon of halting deforestation and boosting livelihoods by handing the reins of forest management back to Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Today, more than a quarter of Nepal’s forests are managed by communities, many of them led by women.
Yet women still lack legal rights to the forests and lands they have long defended and depended on. A 2017 study of 30 low- and middle-income countries found that none, Nepal included, adequately respected the land rights of women.
As Nepal wrote a new constitution and laid out guidelines for three tiers of elections, community forest users worried that the new government would leave little room for the voices of traditionally marginalized groups, like rural women and Dalits, a historically persecuted community in Nepal and India.
The power to sit at the bargaining table and make important policy decisions, they agreed, had to come from adequate representation, particularly at the local government level.
That’s why women leaders and activists at a civil society organization called FECOFUN decided to run for office.
FECOFUN is short for the Federation of Community Forest Users in Nepal. It was born from the idea that forest users across Nepal—Indigenous Peoples, communities, and women who depend on forests for their livelihoods—could form a coalition to strengthen their voices, and protect Nepal’s forests from illegal land grabs and exploitation.
Created in 1995, FECOFUN has since grown into a national social movement. It represents 8.5 million people and more than 19,000 community forestry user groups. And in more recent years, it has emerged as a major champion of women’s leadership.
FECOFUN’s executive leadership is 50 percent women, a formal stipulation that was added to its constitution in 2010. The decision to do so was progressive but highly contentious.
“Some colleagues, both men and women, said that it would not be practical to make compulsory provision for 50 percent of seats to be filled by women at all levels,” says Apsara Chapagain, who spearheaded the push for equal representation. “[They] suggested a 33 percent quota [instead].”
Deliberations lasted for 33 days. Questions and doubts were raised repeatedly. Some argued that women at the grassroots level lacked education, making it unwise to include them in decision-making process. Others said that women had too many responsibilities in their households, which left them no time to focus on the community forestry movement. Some acknowledged that women were capable of practicing conservation, but argued that they lacked the ability to lead and engage in other forms of management.
Chapagain didn’t budge. “I stood firm and even threatened to quit if they did not agree to 50 percent,” she says.
She won—and went on to serve as the organization’s first female chairperson from 2010 to 2014.
In the last decade, FECOFUN has reshaped the community forestry movement in Nepal, supporting women activists as they rose in the ranks to become grassroots organizers and community forest leaders.
To address doubts about women’s leadership capabilities, for example, it launched a national campaign to promote women’s roles as leaders in community forestry. The slogan: “Women are not only protectors of the forest but also owners of resources.”
“Because of the male dominated culture in Nepal,” says Bharati Pathak, General Secretary of FECOFUN, “women used to hesitate to go outside of the house and speak in front of masses. But now they are more confident.”
Momentum for change is building across the country.
In 2018, the country could potentially enact the proposed Forest Rights Act into law, which would legally recognize the forest rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities for the first time.
FECOFUN has been closely involved in the consultation process, working to ensure the final text of the law will reflect input from all constituents, including women and the Dalit community.
But it also recognized that given the unique nature of Nepali politics, many important decisions and policies would be made at the local level. To effectively address the most pertinent issues facing marginalized communities—including violence against women and lack of respect for community land rights—members of the community needed as many seats at the table as possible.
In this context, and with the support of FECOFUN, 1,976 community forestry activists were elected to local government in 2017. 632 were women, translating their leadership on the front lines of the grassroots community forestry movement into electoral success.
“The significant representation of women in local government means there is opportunity to expand women’s access to resources and support women’s livelihoods and prosperity,” Pathak says. “Women have started to take the lead in managing issues of domestic violence against women, advocating for women’s rights, and managing conflicts within the community. There is good hope of making more women-friendly policies.”
With an unprecedented number of community forestry activists, Indigenous Peoples, and rural women in office at the local level, those responsible for protecting and conserving Nepal’s treasured forestlands will truly have a voice in key decision-making processes that affect the future of Nepal.
All photographs courtesy of FECOFUN.