Jael Silliman(WOMENSENEWS)–The watershed U.N. treaty for women’s rights turned 30 this month.

If you want to see why the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW, matters, take a look at Nepal, a country that has undergone momentous changes in the past three years and continues to contend with considerable political turmoil. On Dec. 20, a three-day general strike called by disaffected members of the Maoist party reportedly paralyzed the economy.

But amid this turmoil, which is straining the country’s peace process, it’s possible to find women also marking enormous legal and political gains.

In the language of the draft constitution women now have the constitutional right to confer citizenship to their children.

Activism by women’s rights advocates led to the breakthrough passage of the New Citizenship Act 2063 (2006), which says mothers must be vested with the rights to pass citizenship to their children. The act is in line with the requirements of CEDAW.

Advocates are also using the constitutional drafting process, which began a year ago, to expand reproductive health services so they reach women with disabilities. To get that done, they are using the priniciples of fundamental rights and equality set forth by CEDAW.

Nepal now has Sunil Pant, an openly gay member of parliament who has spurred passage of anti-discrimination legislation. In November 2008, Nepal’s highest court issued final judgment on matters related to the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people. Based on its recommendations, the government will introduce a same-sex marriage bill similar to the laws in place in only a handful of other countries: the Netherlands (2001), Belgium (2003), Spain (2005), Canada (2005) and South Africa (2006).

Public Education

Women’s rights activists have also used the constitutional drafting process as an opportunity for public education.

The Forum for Women, Law and Development, a leading legal advocacy group, is training paralegals with expertise in CEDAW to educate the public on the meaning and significance of the constitutional drafting process and how it holds promise to eliminate discrimination.

Policymakers, thought leaders and grassroots communities are being trained to understand the significance and scope of CEDAW, which Nepal signed in 1991. The trainings focus on the particulars of CEDAW.

Trainers also explain the Optional Protocol to CEDAW that Nepal has ratified. This gives individuals and groups of women a mechanism for bringing complaints and inquiries to the CEDAW U.N. committee about violations of the treaty. The trainings also discuss laws that are discriminatory and how they might be redressed.

Women in elected office, such as Sapna Malla Pradhan, Binda Pande and Arzu Deuba, are working across party lines to extend the equality principle within the judiciary and legal system. This means pointing out discriminatory elements of existing laws and providing training to judges on CEDAW and gender equality.

These same women are safeguarding women’s rights in every aspect of the constitution, from provisions relating to disability rights to land and inheritance rights for women.

Tough Terrain

But none of this is going easily as the country continues to grapple with extensive political conflict.

After a 10-year armed struggle, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) won the largest number of assembly seats and in 2007 led the formation of the Coalition Government of Nepal. Its victory ended the 238-year-old Shaha dynasty of the world’s last Hindu kingdom.

Nepal proclaimed its commitment to democracy, secularism and inclusive development.

That same year, lawmakers promulgated an interim constitution and interim parliament. Each made a far-reaching commitment to eliminating all forms of discrimination against women and ensured one-third representation of women in every state mechanism.

The fall of the monarchy and consequent ushering in of a representative democratic process has intensified people’s efforts to build a more inclusive state.

Women's rights campaign in Kathmandu, November, 2009.

Women’s rights groups have mobilized to continue to apply CEDAW as a legal tool to advance women’s rights.

But they are hobbled by political volatility.

Though the Communist party won the most votes in the 2008 elections, Prachanda, the prime minister resigned this past May when he failed in his attempt to fire the chief of the army.

Now, Maoists seeking to regain governmental control routinely block parliamentary processes by boycotting votes. They have also taken their battle for political power to the streets and call for strikes against the current government’s policies.

Deadline in Doubt

With all this going on, the nation-building process that the constitutional drafting process represents is still inching forward, with meetings and reviews going ahead.

Eight months ago, on a visit to Nepal to meet with women’s rights activists and organizations, I found a sense of widespread excitement and optimism about Nepal’s democratic future.

On a recent trip, however, I found signs of frustration and disillusionment among activists as well as people I spoke to on the street. They were fed up with prolonged power and fuel shortages that crippled much of Nepal over the last year.

But proclaiming democracy is not a magic formula for realizing democracy.

Nor is it a magic formula for women’s expanded rights.

Customary practices–such as confining menstruating women and women who have just given birth, considered unclean–continue even though the Supreme Court outlawed extreme confinement three years ago.

The Supreme Court has also ordered the government to investigate whether the practice of worshipping a virgin girl–Kumari worship–violates the rights of the girl who is selected as a Kumari when she is between 4 and 7 years old. She lives apart from her family and serves in this religious capacity till her first menstruation.

But even the Maoists bow to public sentiment and appointed a Kumari, part of the monarchic tradition.

Women’s rights activists note that in this time of political turmoil it would be hard to banish this age-old tradition, which provides a sense of comfort and continuity.

However, women’s rights activists like Sapna Malla Pradhan are promoting the Kumaris’ rights to education and counseling and are advocating for increasing their small pension to compensate them for the enormous toll this tradition takes on their lives.

The new constitution, meanwhile, is rising in the background, promising to buttress the country’s social stability and expanded human rights.

And for that, the women’s rights activists who have become regional experts in applying CEDAW to advance gender equality get a great deal of the credit.

Jael Silliman, based in Kolkata, India, is a feminist activist, scholar and the author of several books on feminist topics.