Quotas bring wave of Nepalese women into office. What they need next.

Inside an airy room overlooking the Himalayas, Pampha Basel squints at a map scrawled out for her on a sheet of paper. Villagers stream into the room and drag their chairs around her, their new deputy mayor, and comment on the drawing. It shows the hike they take each day to collect safe drinking water.

They are Dalits, or “untouchables,” the lowest Hindu caste. For more than a decade, their water source was separate from that of higher-caste villages. They now use the same tap, but the women must trek to reach it, lugging jerry cans down a steep and slippery path cut through the mountain. The water is often speckled with dirt. The villagers hope Ms. Basel – a Dalit woman herself and one of more than 5,000 Dalit women recently elected to Nepal’s local government bodies under a new quota system – will use her clout to help them.

Nepal, a tiny Himalayan country tucked between India and China, now has one of the world’s largest gender quota systems, intended to swiftly increase the number of women in politics. Since the civil war between Maoist rebels and state forces ended in 2006, the government has adopted quotas that reserve seats for women and, in particular, women from disadvantaged caste and ethnic groups – like Basel. In 2007, quotas were enacted at the national level; this year, in the country’s first local elections in 20 years, they are being enacted for cities and districts. 

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The local elections – held in three phases, ending Sept. 18 – are catapulting women into politics. These women, who range from activists and small business owners to laborers, homemakers, and teachers, want to reshape the social norms that have left their communities excluded for centuries.

Quotas are a controversial solution, with critics saying they propel women past more qualified male candidates. Yet, for the most part, the quotas here have been welcomed, and the elections have spurred hope of change. But the real challenge, women’s advocates say, comes after the ballots are turned in. Gender quotas guarantee women are elected, but experts say additional efforts can help them participate meaningfully once in office.

Ila Sharma, an election commissioner, says the government plans to train newly elected women for their positions. And after Nepal’s turbulent path to democracy, she believes the quotas are essential.

“Everybody – women, Dalits, minority…

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