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Democracy is a Difficult Task
One thing is the vision; another thing is the practicalities of democracy. Women Welfare Association have had their first election to the boardBy Malene Lærke
10. May 2005
It is the annual meeting at Women Welfare Association, WWA, in Tansen, Palpa district. The more than a 100 women in the hall at Red Cross are excited. After having listened to long speeches for one and a half day it is time for what they came for namely the first election to the board of WWA in the twelve years the organisation has existed. This is for many of the young women their first experience with democracy and how it is practised through an election.
The decision to start having an election for the board was taken because WWA is a membership based organisation. The present leadership has also realised that the organisation needs to build up second generation leadership to continue developing WWA. Before that the practise was that the board members got up on the stage and declared they would continue the work in the board and the audience did not speak against it.
“In the beginning the board members were very reluctant to let this election happen. They spoke strongly against it. They were afraid of not being elected again because it gives status in the community to be a member of the board but after many meetings they began to realise that an election would be a good idea and that other people should get the opportunity. This is a member based organisation and to be that in reality the board members have to be democratically elected,” says programme coordinator in WWA, Yubaraj Basyal.
Democracy is a process
In all there are 15 seats on the board. The 18 candidates are fighting for seven seats. According to the constitution 6 candidates have already been elected from within the previous board and another 2 seats are reserved for Delis and ethnic groups.
All 32 women groups under WWA have had visits by staff and have been taught about democracy. The members were told that this was an opportunity for them to elect who should make the policy of WWA. In all there are 822 members of WWA. The 32 groups were asked to select three people who should represent the group at the annual meeting. Among the three chosen members one was elected to run for the board.
We have made a great deal out of explaining the process. Many illiterate people on the grass root level do not know what democracy is and what it means and what it implies,” says Yubaraj Basyal who has been involved in the practical matters of the election.
“Before the election we formed an election committee with representatives from the different bodies of WWA and included a participant from Nepal Lawyers Association in case any legal issues should arise,” explains Yubaraj Basyal.
Back in the hall the candidates present themselves on stage stating their name. The old board members confidently walk up on the stage - one even sings a song - and they begin to make speeches. The new candidates on the other hand are shy; some of them stop in the middle of a sentence and quickly sit down. People are laughing and clapping.
Initially the candidates were not supposed to get on stage. WWA had deliberately decided that the candidates should not make long speeches. Instead all were encouraged to write down their statements and put them up on the walls.
“If we gave the chance to give a speech on the stage the new candidates would not have a chance. The old board members have grown confident through the training they have received through WWA and they have a strong voice which the new candidates cannot match. Basically, we wanted to give equal opportunity to all,” states Yubaraj Basyal.
A very difficult process
Back in the hall everything is chaos. Five minutes before the election is set to begin it is discovered that one of the candidates on the ballot is in Kathmandu. Those not present cannot run for election, thus an employee from WWA have to rush to the office to make 100 new copies. It is discovered that a box for the voting papers have to be made and the election committee quickly begins to assemble one from an old carbon box while a new problem is arising: a room for voting to secure privacy has to be found. It is not possible to find a room, but a table is put in a stairwell on the rooftop. The women gather on the rooftop, they sit in small groups and discuss and programme coordinator Yubaraj Basyal adds a cross on his list every time one of the women has cast a vote.
The women see it as a privilege to get the chance to cast their vote.
"This is so good, says Narayami Khumal. – We don’t know what an election is but now we can experience it first hand. This is very important for me because I want good leadership in the organisation. We have no education and no development but this gives me a voice to I can be heard," she says.
"Before we did not know the rights of women but now we know and we are also taught the systems within an organisation, " adds Manju Suraj.
Each woman has to vote for seven candidates and that takes time. One more room is needed. Different solutions are discussed and rejected. Finally two boxes are placed on the table to divide it in two, so that two women can vote at the same time. That solution is quickly rejected however; the women in the room keep talking about who to vote for. A room is found downstairs but rejected because there is no electricity. DW Sussi Utoft is doing her best not to throw a fit and while waving about with her arms she utters: - This should have been arranged yesterday.
The women are patiently waiting and the WWA employees are sweating. A minor problem of the pen to mark the ballot paper running out of ink is quickly solved. The women, after having cast their vote, want to go back to their group while staff tries to lure them downstairs for tea and snacks.
“Have you seen the small pieces of paper they bring with them? Do you know why they want to go back to their group?” asks Sussi Utoft.
“In each group they have decided who to vote for but in order to remember the names they have written them on a note they pass on.”
Another room is found but then the problem with keeping track of who has voted has to be solved first. The solution is to send the women downstairs after being registered on the list upstairs. All women rush downstairs to vote. The initial difficulties are over. Now it is time to wait patiently for the election to end.
How to count votes in a democracy
The boxes with the voting papers are carried into the hall. The women sit impatiently in the hall when a heated discussion begins. The group members want the votes to be counted in public by the board members. Some of the candidates are afraid that there will be fiddled with the votes if they are not counted in public and they want to observe the process. The arguments fly across the hall, but the box are finally carried to a separate room after the women has been ensured that things are done the right way.
“We simply cannot sit and discuss in public whether a voting paper is valid or not. It just doesn’t work,” says Sussi Utoft.
While the votes are being counted the women entertain themselves with singing and dancing. They sing about the hardship of women’s life in Nepal while they swirl around the floor.
After an hour of counting the result is announced. Of the seven seats up for election three new members is elected and four former board members are re-elected. The two nominated seats went to a new member and an old member respectively. Dismay spreads in the crowd.
“This was a bad election,” an old woman says while waving her hand in the air to push the new board away.
“There should be more new members on the board. This is no good,” she continues and shakes her head. But the voice of the people has spoken and in two years she will be a new chance to make her voice heard and elect new board members.
Asked about the lessons learned from the election, Yubaraj Basyal takes his time to think about the answer.
”Generally I think it was a good election and we did the best we could. We will learn from the mistakes we have made,” he says. Taking a pause he adds grinningly: “Next time I will make sure that we have a computer in the hall, so that we can print new voting papers immediately and avoid having to run back to the office. It takes too much time.
DW Sussi Utoft hopes that in particular the staffs have learned a lesson about the principles of secret voting and vote counting.
“I also hope the members have experienced what it means to exercise their rights in a democratic process - that this has given them confidence and a feeling of ownership. One of the most important learning, I believe, has happened among the old board members. They seem to have realised something about being responsible, legitimate and accountable representatives in an organisation of 822 women,” she concludes.