By Debapriya Sen Vaite
New Delhi, April 10, 2019: As we cast our votes to elect representatives for the 17th Lok Sabha, it is regrettable that, except for a few political parties, the issue of women’s representation in politics has not been accorded the due importance that it deserves.
From 24 elected women members in the First Lok Sabha, which commenced in 1952, we now have 66 women MPs in the 16th Lok Sabha, which is mere 12 percent of the total parliamentary seats. The national average of women MLAs is abysmal 9 percent.
There have been some important moves to increase women’s participation in politics such as reservation for women in local urban bodies and Panchayats, which after initial proxy representation for husbands, is gradually leading to shifting of power to women in real sense. However, it is a fact that women are underrepresented in Indian politics and deserve increased space and visibility in political institutions and processes especially at the legislative and parliamentary institutions.
Participation of women in the political movement which, historically began during the Indian freedom struggle, and encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi is yet to reach its full potential.
Women who joined the freedom struggle in large numbers, participating in the Satyagraha movement, going to prisons willingly, came to forefront especially during civil disobedience movement of 1930. They became powerful instruments of political and social change in the history of India paving the path for the world’s largest democracy. But subsequently, the Indian society and political systems failed to continue that momentum.
Why reservation needed
There is a strong correlation between status of women in society and their political participation.
When we seek for equal empowerment of all citizens, equal representation becomes essential. Women constitute almost 50 percent of the country’s population. How is it possible to run a democratic system efficiently and successfully when only half its population is represented and actively participates in highest policy decision making?
Those sitting in the parliament, the assembly are going to be the voice of women in India. They will be speaking their mind and taking policy decisions keeping the women’s perspective also in mind for every issue.
The winnability of candidates and financial capabilities to run the campaign are inextricably attached to the distribution of tickets across parties. Even though the winning percentage of women contestants had always been higher with respect to male contestant’s right from the first election to creation of 15th Lok Sabha, the ticket distribution has been abysmally skewed against them.
Sharing the power will always face resistance. There is a natural tendency to resist the influx of newcomers in every party. In case of women, the need to prove themselves, justify their presence is a bit higher. This, despite the fact that women workers across parties are playing a vital role of increasing the party voter base by conducting meetings, door-to-door canvassing, mobilizing and enrolling women to vote for the party.
This is where the need for reservation becomes important. One must understand that, it is not asking for a privilege but striving for equality, equal opportunity, equal space. It is to first bring them to be at a level playing situation.
The Women’s Reservation Bill [The Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill] which seeks to reserve one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies is yet to see the light of the day. Sessions after sessions went by, but the bill was not given a chance to be tabled in the Lower House throughout the last five years. A poll promise which seems to have disappeared in thin air despite of a majority government with no excuse for political consensus.
Performance of women policy makers:
Women’s leadership in political decision-making processes deliver better socio-economic outcomes. A recent study by the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research found that assembly constituencies with women representatives show significantly higher economic growth than those under their male counterparts.
According to data maintained by Inter-Parliamentary Union, women demonstrate political leadership by working across party lines – even in the most politically combative environments – and by championing issues such as the elimination of gender-based violence, parental leave and childcare, pensions, gender-equality laws and electoral reform
Analysis of 2005-2006 Rural Economic and Demographic Survey data shows political quotas for women in local elections change policies not only in favor of women but also low-castes; intersection of diff. Research on panchayats (local councils) in India discovered that the number of drinking water projects in areas with women-led councils was 62 percent higher than in those with men-led councils (UN Women).
A gender- neutral environment can positively impact and accelerate change in society. The day will come when no reservation will be required for women. They can come out and contest elections based on their merit, their work on ground and relation with the public. Until we reach there, the reservation will lay the foundation stone.
Keeping my confidence in the objectivity and representativeness of our electoral system, I sincerely hope that we achieve a gender equitable representation in the political firmament sooner.
(The writer is a New Delhi based Social Development Specialist)