Women's Day 2019: Achievements unlocked, skills proven, but women's representation in Indian politics embarrassingly low

On International Women's day, a look at women in politics in India and their low representation in parliaments and decision-making roles.

Shraddha Chowdhury March 08, 2019 12:33:47 IST
Women's Day 2019: Achievements unlocked, skills proven, but women's representation in Indian politics embarrassingly low
  • A UN study ranked India in the 148th spot among 193 countries in terms of the number of women in Parliament

  • Women constitute around 11.8 percent of the Lok Sabha and 11 percent in the Rajya Sabha, while the global average is 22 percent

  • The Modi government has done little to push for the women's reservation bill

It's International Women's day today. Which means countries and their political leaders around the world are going to sing praises of women, their empowerment, achievements and how far they have come. While it amuses the most that the world needs this one specific day to appreciate women, let's take what we can get in this patriarchy-entrenched society.

For centuries, women have had to fight for the basics, from tasks as simple as making household decisions to the suffragette movement to be able to vote like their "superior" male counterparts. Even today, such is the sorry state of affairs that an advocate of the stature of Indira Jaising is referred to, by the Attorney General of India, nonetheless, as the wife of senior counsel Anand Grover. Her standing and her achievements are of no value.

Speaking of decision-making, women are making their way to top government posts and parliaments, but their representation still remains abysmally low in the political scene.

India's 16th Lok Sabha may have the highest number of women the Lower House has ever had, but a report, prepared by Inter-Parliamentary Union and United Nations Women in 2017, ranked the country in the 148th spot among 193 countries in terms of the number of women in Parliament. Rwanda topped the list with women making up more than 61 percent of its parliamentarians.

Women constitute around 11.8 percent of the Lok Sabha and 11 percent in the Rajya Sabha. There are 64 women in the 542-member Lower House and 27 women in the 254-member Upper House. The global average of women in parliaments stands at 22 percent.

"What is democracy? Is it for the people, or men for the people?" Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka had asked, also highlighting that countries with reservation for women in Parliament ranked better on the list.

The same year, Oxfam noted that between the first (1952) and 16th Lok Sabha, women's representation rose a meagre 4.4 percent. It observed a similar trend of low women's representation in the Rajya Sabha post-Independence — a minor rise of 6.9 percent in 1952 to 11.4 percent in 2014. Again, we must note that these figures are significantly lower than the global average of 22.9 percent and Asian average of 16.3 percent — even more so when the proportion of women (49.5 percent) in India's population is considered.

Women's reservation bill

Prime Minister Narendra Modi loves to boast about the myriad of schemes his government has implemented to empower women. He most often brings up the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao initiative, though ironically, it is this tagline that the public and Opposition alike use against him whenever we hear.

Modi accuses past governments of ignoring women's welfare and not working towards empowering the fairer sex. He lays it down on the Congress when the party opposes certain provisions of the proposed triple talaq bill. But here, the grand old party has a notable retort — whatever happened to the women's reservation bill, one of the BJP's key poll promises in 2014?

The women's reservation bill seeks to reserve one-third (or 33 percent) of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies and a third of these seats for women from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

The demand for this bill has been a long-standing one, with little progress. It was introduced by the UPA 1 government in 2008, and similar bills were introduced three times in Parliament in the late 1990s, but all lapsed with the dissolution of the Lok Sabhas.

The current government has been largely silent about proposed legislation, instead focused on granting various caste-based reservations to suit its political needs and reserve its own vote bank.

What makes the government's true intentions with regard to one of its most appreciated poll promises even more suspicious is that it would have been easy to pass the women's reservation bill as the Rajya Sabha had approved it in 2010, and Opposition parties, including the Congress, AIADMK, DMK, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Nationalist Congress Party, all pledged support to it.

This makes us wonder whether the country is even prepared to have women take on leading roles. What other reason could there possibly be for a ready-t0-pass bill to be kept locked in the closet of pending legislation?

One must note that in 2017, TR Zeliang had to step down as the chief minister of Nagaland after he faced protests from tribal groups for reserving 33 percent seats for women in the civic polls.

Furthermore, while we could mention that women have 33 percent reservation in local bodies — a move in 1993 that made politics accessible to women — the primary inference here is that the husbands and other male relatives are really the de-facto leaders in these cases, projecting the women as the faces of the seats but taking on the responsibilities and making the decisions themselves.

Male shadow behind women in power

Whenever the subject of women's representation in Indian politics comes up, there's always the mention of Indira Gandhi becoming the Prime Minister of India at a time when world democracies had few female leaders. There's also the mention of former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati. While they are all examples of women in power, any praise of them always comes with a caveat — could Indira Gandhi have become the prime minister had she not been Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter? Would Jayalalithaa and Mayawati have come into their own without the support of MGR and Kanshi Ram?

Of course, their political acumen and leadership skills are moot here.

When we look at things in this perspective, it becomes clear that it's a mammoth task for women in politics to work their way up and break that proverbial glass ceiling, sidestepping jibes against their success "despite being a woman".

Women’s leadership and political participation are restricted even though it's acknowledged globally that gender equality and women’s empowerment are the key to achieving development objectives. There is an underrepresentation of women, be it as voters, or in leading positions in an elected office, academia, the civil service or the private sector. This is the reality despite their proven abilities and the right to participate equally in a democracy.

"Women in every part of the world continue to be largely marginalised from the political sphere, often as a result of discriminatory laws, practices, attitudes and gender stereotypes, low levels of education, lack of access to health care, and the disproportionate effect of poverty on women," the 2011 UN General Assembly resolution on women's political participation had said.

No qualms to conclude that India just isn't ready. Happy Women's Day, all!

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