Long march for women

Political empowerment

Gender equality has assumed importance in deliberations on sustainable development and human rights as the centuries-old gender gaps persist in various areas of life, including in the domain of governance and politics. Protagonists for gender equality contend that women’s participation in politics can be a reinforcing factor as they are most likely to give new perspectives, approaches and momentum to empowerment initiatives.

Global efforts under the aegis of the UN resulted in a number of path-breaking declarations and resolves to usher in a gender equitable world. India, home to 18% of global population, is a signatory to all such global commitments, but sadly remains far behind in reaching the set global parameters in many areas, more particularly, in women’s political participation.

Last month, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) ranked India at 152 in terms of women’s representation in national parliaments, in a list of 193 countries. Neighbouring countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China and Iraq all ranked higher than India.

According to IPU and UN Women data, the Lok Sabha has only 11.8% women’s representation, with 64 women members in a house of 542; the Rajya Sabha has only 27 women members in a house of 237 (11.4%). Rwanda, with a population of 1.22 crore and which was recently ravaged by mass genocide, tops the IPU list with 61.3% women’s representation — 49 women members in its parliament’s 80-member lower house and 38.5% in the upper house — 10 women in a house of 26. Rwanda’s constitution has adopted gender equality as one of the fundamental principles and earmarked a quota of 30% for women in parliament.

The rise in women’s representation in parliament has been tardy. From the first Lok Sabha in 1952 to the 16th Lok Sabha in 2014, it rose from 4.4% to 11.9%, a figure far below the present global average of 23.4%. In the Rajya Sabha, it rose from 6.9% in 1952 to 11.4% in 2014, again substantially lower than the global average of 22.9% and Asian average of 16.3% for upper houses of parliament. India, however, fared better in terms of percentage of women appointed in ministerial positions and ranked at 88 among 186 countries, having 18.5% of women appointed in ministerial positions as of January 2017.

The 2017-18 Economic Survey highlighted the issue of low representation of women in politics and identified several factors that hinder women from entering the political arena. Some such are domestic responsibilities, prevailing cultural prejudices, lack of support from the family, confidence-deficit in mainline political parties that they can win, and lesser clout in garnering financial support to run electoral campaigns.

But there is a silver lining. The Constitutional 73rd and 74th amendments have created history and opened up entry for women in local governments. India has about 13.72 lakh elected women representatives in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI), constituting about 44.2% of total elected representatives as on December 2017, indicating a slow transition towards an active women’s leadership at the lower rungs of democracy.

However, in a survey in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the Centre for Social Research found some shortcomings in performance, like the majority of women playing only figurative roles while the male family members actually run the show, and their lack of knowledge about women-related laws and the procedural skills for managing the PRIs.

The Election Commission has also taken note of the issue of lower representation of women in parliament, despite women being 49% of the electorate and showing a better success rate as candidates — 6.4% for men, 9.3% for women in the current Lok Sabha — as well as a 15-fold increase in the number of women contestants as against the 5-fold increase in male contestants from 1957 to 2015. It had in its consultation meeting in August 2018 brought the issue to the attention of all seven registered national political parties and 51 state political parties.

Many women’s organisations in India regret that the Women’s Reservation Bill has now completely disappeared from public discourse. Both BJP and Congress manifestos in the last Lok Sabha election committed to one-third reservation for women, both in Parliament and state assemblies but neither party fielded anywhere close to that many female candidates in the last elections.

If we look at the recent Karnataka assembly elections, which had 2.44 crore women in the electoral list, comprising 49% of the total electorate, there were only seven, or 3.1%, women, one more from the previous election in 2013, out of the 222 successful candidates. Women were only 219 among the 2,655 total candidates in the fray. In the Tripura assembly elections this year, there were only 24 women candidates among the 297 candidates, out of them only three were winners, two from the BJP, one from the CPI(M).

Indian women remain poorly represented in the higher echelons of political power, despite having many strong women leaders — not just Indira Gandhi, but also completely self-made women like Mamata Banerjee or Jayalalithaa or Mayawati, who wield considerable power in their respective states and in national politics.

India can perhaps take a leaf out of countries like Austria, Cameroon, Canada, France, Sweden and South Africa where political parties have voluntarily adopted policies of assigning a certain percentage of seats for women in their electoral lists, parliaments and governments. This has led to an overall increase in women’s political participation and thus made a legally mandated quota redundant as political parties agreed to adopt a ‘voluntary’ quota.

Indeed, as of now, it is a long and arduous journey for Indian women to occupy an equal space with men in political power-sharing and governance.

(The writer, a retired Indian Information Service officer, is a media educationist)

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