A flat tire, road construction obstructions and a half-hour hike uphill later we were finally there at our destination – a school in Chaughare, a small village, a mere 25 km as the road stretches from the capital but two hours as a voter education team drives and hikes. Our team of volunteers – street drama artists and dohori team – then ascended on to the hillside where the school was perched, to carry out the voter education program.
Democracy and Elections Watch, DEW-Nepal with support from National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI-Nepal) is carrying out a Kathmandu valley wide Voter Information Dissemination to Marginalized Groups Program. DEW-Nepal is mobilizing nearly 100 volunteers and members within Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur districts to carry out voter information programs both at the metropolitan and VDC level. It was for one such program that I, a program officer for the Voter Education Program at NDI, found myself trudging up a hill in inappropriate sandals, clutching voter education materials and supervising the lugging of a generator from the back of our vehicle to the top of the hill.
I turned 18 in… let’s just say I turned 18 a long time ago. This is the first time I’m getting to exercise my right to vote. Pardon my enthusiasm, but the idea of playing an active role in such a momentous election in Nepal’s history has me very excited. Planning out the program was tricky though. How to disseminate voter education without duplicating the efforts of other organizations and the Election Commission?
The public has become extremely pamphlet-shy, wary of anyone handing them pamphlets and leaflets, suspecting that it is yet another political party’s memorandum accompanied by an appeal for votes. We were afraid that public speeches would elicit the same reaction.
So we thought of street drama and dohori, which incorporate acts and lyrics aimed at drawing the public’s attention to the upcoming elections, the channels through which we can urge the public to exercise their right to vote. Till date, these programs have been conducted in over 80 VDCs within the three target districts. The audience turnout has ranged from hundreds of people turning up at Duwakot, Bhaktapur to a handful of people watching from their balconies in Bhimdhunga, Mahadevsthan. The team of volunteers, nearly 90 per cent of who are youth, DEW-Nepal district committee members and the accompanying artists have worked relentlessly in each one of them believing that the vote of the one single bystander in Bhimdhunga is equal to that of one of the multitude of audience at Duwakot.
During the course of this program, my colleagues and I have often met with people who question the idea of turning up to vote. They cite corrupt politicians and the failure of the previous Constituent Assembly to do their work, among other things as reasons for their unwillingness to vote in the second CA election. To them I say, “Let’s crunch some numbers”.
The population of Nepal is over 26 million, out of which about 50 per cent are over 18 and hence eligible to vote. Over two million are away in foreign employment (World Bank, 2009) and hence unable to exercise their right in the absence of a provision for distance voting. Of this eligible pool, only 12.4 million have registered to vote (as of July, 2013). These people have the responsibility to vote for themselves but also in some way on behalf of those who either can’t or those who can but refuse to.
I am one of them. I understand the gravity of the responsibility and the value of my single vote. Some of the villages in Lalitpur district are not very far from the capital but they are rural and remote. There I have watched women hugging two children over each hip, all three smiling shyly and listening as we explain the difference between a Constituent Assembly and a Parliamentary election, and the importance of representation in a democracy. I can patiently explain to her why her vote is important. The personal frustration sets in when educated fellow youths question the importance; when they state that they have more important work to do than vote.
I’m juggling a fulltime job and a ‘barely-existing but there’ social life and I’m frustrated with the political sluggishness too. But come November 19, I am going to cast my vote.
I’m a woman of strong opinions. I’ll voice it at work to my weary but supportive fellow program officer, at home to a flustered father and on my online notes to anyone who will stumble upon them. I’m not going to miss the biggest chance of voicing one’s opinion in a democracy. I’m going to express my opinion through my vote. Not just air it over drinks with friends on a Friday night or over chiya in the kuna ko pasal.
The writer is a graduate from Yale University with an MA in International Relations and is a Program Officer at NDI-Nepal. Any views of the writer are those of her own and do not reflect those of NDI.