By Aprajita Singh
The crux of the matter is, though a reservation is highly desirable for women in legislatures at all levels, be it Union level or state level (it’s already there at the Panchayat level) reservation alone will not suffice. It could at most be a giant leap towards an ideal of women’s empowered society. However, it is going to be one of the measures. Women empowerment also requires educational empowerment and most importantly economic empowerment.
The father of our nation once wrote “Women are the companion of man, gifted with equal mental capacities.” This thought is so powerful that almost all avenues for women can be derived from it, be it giving equal opportunities to women in jobs, having them at leadership positions in all walks of life, economic independence, political representation, companion at home, role models away from it and whatnot.
One such noble intention that still lingers in limbo is the Constitution’s 108th Amendment Bill that aims to reserve seats for women in the House of People (Lok Sabha) and all state legislative assemblies (passed in the Rajya Sabha with an overwhelming majority in 2010 but pending in LokSabha). But before we get to it, the question that why we need a reservation for women in legislatures needs to be answered. The Constitution to me is gender-neutral and a path-breaking instrument in the sense that it makes adult suffrage a constitutional right implicit in such a provision is that Constitution vividly imagined a society where women would be equally represented in all walks of life. But as the history of India has shown in the past 70 years that women continue to be inadequately represented in all walks of life, but more importantly in the legislatures. This raises the question as Cynthia Enloe famously put it “Where are the women?”
If we go by statistics, the average representation of women has been 8%, though at present in the seventeenth Lok Sabha it is 14.5 % (Global average being 24.3%-24.6%). The Global Gender Gap Report 2018 highlights that the widest gap is in the field of political empowerment. Thus to make democracy more inclusive and to increase women’s visibility, external antidotes such as a legally mandated reservation system for women in legislatures are needed. The bill, therefore, is a powerful tool to empower women and enable them to participate in democratic law-making and holding the government to account more significantly.
Globally too, experience has shown that women’s position in political spaces has taken an upward trend. For instance -Rwanda has legislated 30%quota for women in all elected offices. In Cuba, women occupy 53.25% of its 605 member’s single house. Closer home, Nepal has 90 women legislators it’s 275 members lower house. These facts of course do not in any way reflect the upward trend or benefits that have accrued to women on account of these steps but are the first step towards the eventual ideal of women empowerment.
The Indian case on the other hand is a mixed bag. The current Lok Sabha has around 14.5% of women legislators (78 members.) At Least 7 out of 29 states have not sent a women MP. The system of voluntary quota system in political parties that have worked well in other countries, will probably not work in India because of deeply patriarchal society.
So what has kept the women’s reservation bill in limbo for all these years? The answer is a very substantial part is the design fault with the bill. The issue was discussed even before independence which was evident in the views of Pandit Nehru – He opposed reservation. He argued that it compromises merit and if introduced it cannot be rolled back. Sarojini Naidu was also against reservation. According to her, it will impact the confidence of women. Women can be selected based on their merit.
Towards equality report 1974-It opposed reservation in Parliament and assembly do favor reservation in local bodies. Prominent political parties oppose the bill on the ground that quotas could be appropriated by the powerful stand-ins (or the creamy layer/well off among women). They, therefore, demand “reservation within the reservation for the backward classes”. Ela Bhatt of SEWA – She opposes women reservation and suggests that government should focus on economic empowerment.
Shirin Rai – feminist scholar – She also opposed reservation because it does not serve the purpose. She gives the example of Pakistan. Pakistan’s national assembly has reserved seats for women but it does not mean that it has resulted in improvement in the status of women. Feminist scholars Keenan &Laura support women reservation on the following grounds –
- Women’s representation has been stagnant.
- Women are not elected does not mean that they are not talented. Not all members present in a parliament are based on merit efficiency.
- Women are not able to get elected because of the social environment, which remains poor, and hence catalysts like reservations at needed.
Prominent politicians of all major parties like Sonia Gandhi, Late Sushma Swaraj, and Brinda Karat favor women reservation.
The consensus, therefore, seems to be towards reservation for women in legislatures. Our experience with governance at the panchayat and municipal level clearly shows that women are more likely, when in leadership positions, than their male counterparts, to make decisions that are more conducive for an inclusive and just society. There is no denying the fact that we need other steps like recognition of women achievers, economic empowerment (women-based SHG, STEM job opportunities), greater access to quality high education, health, maternity benefits, sexual harassment curbs, etc. Political parties need to streamline their inner party working on democratic principles (greater women participation in decision-making).
But we need this legislation more than ever now. For one, to have greater women participation in decision-making bodies, and to change chauvinistic mindsets. Secondly as a tool for greater visibility of women in the temple of democracy. It’s high time that Parliament shows the way or else schemes such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao will remain mere lip service.
(The writer is an Assistant professor (SS) at School of Law, UPES, Dehradun)
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