Mohna Ansari – fighting for minority and women’s rights in Nepal

28 February 2018 Anurag Acharya

As part of Saferworld's gender, security and development interview series, we spoke with Mohna Ansari, a lawyer, human rights activist, and spokesperson for Nepal's National Human Rights Commission who has fought for the rights of women and marginalised communities throughout Nepal for over two decades.

Nepal’s constituent assembly began drafting the new constitution after the country emerged from a decade of violent conflict that ended in 2006. People from marginalised groups – including ethnic, religious and sexual minorities as well as women – engaged in the process, but when the document was finally promulgated in 2015, many felt it had not addressed their concerns. Many women objected to the fact that the new constitutional provision did not allow them to confer citizenship to their children without being subordinated to their male partner. As Mohna argues in the interview, such legal provisions reinforce the same harmful norms that the constitution claims to counteract. As a result of these constitutional failings, women often find it difficult to pursue a career or express themselves freely, particularly in villages or small towns. Mohna faced these challenges herself, but nevertheless went on to become Nepal's first Muslim woman law graduate.

Mohna began her professional career taking up cases of poor Muslim families who couldn’t afford legal services. After the civil and political movement intensified in 2006, Mohna went to Kathmandu to join a coalition of women's movements that pressured the constituent assembly to address women's rights in the new constitution. In 2010, she was appointed as one of the commissioners of the National Women's Commission, and in October 2014 she was appointed a member of the National Human Rights Commission.

‘The preamble of Nepal's constitution guarantees equal rights for men and women and talks about non-discriminatory principles, but the citizenship provision contradicts this’, she said. However, she was quick to point out the positive aspects of the charter, especially the provision that guarantees 33 per cent of seats to women at all levels of state institutions, as a means of paving the way for women to assume leadership roles. 'But these provisions must be implemented in a way that adhere to the principles of inclusion’, she added. ‘They should benefit women from the most marginalised parts of society'.

Because of these provisions and the work of women’s rights activists, over the last few years Nepal has had a woman speaker of the house, supreme court chief justice and a woman president. Recent parliamentary, provincial and local elections have also galvanised hundreds of women and other marginalised groups to assume decision-making roles – from village and town councils to provincial and federal parliament. These are encouraging signs for the new republic, which must steer clear of the tokenism that defined much of its past experiences of minority representation.

Contentions over the new constitution and what it offers to people of different gender and sexual identities will continue to be debated for many years to come. But recent gains – especially those around representation and the growing number of women leaders – should reinvigorate the conversation and bring about more rapid change.