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Why is passing the Women’s Reservation Bill urgent?
Rajini R. Menon
“Does it really require to have reservations for women in the Parliament? Don’t you think efficient men will lose their opportunity to make the necessary impact?”
A young woman political leader put this question to the delegation of women’s rights organisation (WRO) when they met her earlier this year to seek support and endorse the memorandum to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill. It took a while to convince her that reservation for women in the national parliament and state legislatures was a necessary step to ensure women’s participation in decision-making. Assuming that women would automatically be able to create a level playing field in the political arena without any affirmative action is a misplaced idea.
It was the second question that was a tougher nut to crack. The main argument against the Bill is that 179 men will have to give up their seats for the quota to be implemented. There is definitely no easy solution that would work for all. But this rationale is not good enough to nip in the bud the idea of having more women in decision-making roles in the governance of the country.
Of the 543 Members of Parliament (MPs) only 62 are women in the current Lok Sabha. This is a mere 11 per cent representation for the 49 per cent people of India i.e. women1 . On the other, the 51 per cent population, i.e. men, have a hefty representation of 89 per cent in the Parliament.
Is this even a fair division for decision-making?
Further still, in the 2014 batch of Lok Sabha, of the 35 states and Union Territories (UTs), 15 have no women MPs2 . The proportion of women MPs increased in only 9 states between 2004 and 20093. The rest have either remained the same since the last election or decreased. Between 2009 and 2014, barring West Bengal, there has been a fall in the proportion of female members in the Parliament 4; West Bengal has the maximum proportion (28.6 per cent) of female members (12 seats in 2014) in the Lok Sabha 5.
The situation in the state legislatures is as disappointing6 . Only 8 states 7;have more than 10 per cent of women Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs). Meghalaya and Puducherry have no women MLAs in their state legislatures. The only silver lining is that states that have performed poorly on the sex ratio have performed better, than those with a healthy sex ratio, in women representation in the state assemblies. For instance, in 2014 Haryana had the highest proportion of women MLAs (14.5 per cent). Others like Bihar and MP too had 11 and 13.04 per cent respectively. The 2016 Assembly elections report, compared to 2011, show that except Assam (8 MLAs), the rest of the states i.e. Kerala (8 MLAs), Tamil Nadu (17 MLAs), West Bengal (40 MLAs) show an increase in the number of seats won by women.8
Clearly, even after 69 years of independence, India has been unable to achieve equal gender representation in politics. In the South Asian region, India ranks fifth, in women’s representation in Parliament, out of the eight countries 9. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal have more women representation than India in the Parliament. Countries with better women’s representation have ensured to create constitutionally mandated quotas or reservation for women. Most of the top 20 countries with high female representation in Parliament have around 30 per cent reservation for women10. In South Asia, Nepal has 29 per cent legislated quota for women, Afghanistan has 28 per cent, Pakistan and Bangladesh, each, have 20 per cent seats reserved for women . Among the BRICS nations, India ranks fourth out of the five countries. Globally, too, India is far behind with a ranking of 103 out of 190 countries in women’s representation in the lower house of the Parliament.
There is evidence, back home, that reservation for women have improved local governance. The 33 per cent reservation in the Panchayats and local bodies, as mandated by the 73rd and 74th amendment of the Constitution in 1995, facilitated the entry of lakhs of women in the political arena. Some states like Bihar raised it to 50 per cent. The study by Ministry of Panchayati Raj shows that women from every strata of society, despite tremendous odds and difficulties, have made significant contributions11 . It was reported that a very high proportion of wards with women representatives had basic facilities like streetlights, bus shelters, drinking water, and toilets at the household level. The female ward members, especially, are known to be more aware about government schemes. This is definitely true for the Indira Awas Yojana. It has been seen that the wards with a good female representation adopt a fair process for selection of beneficiaries.
Despite the evidence, women’s representation at the hub of decision-making, both at the Centre and State, hovers around a dismal 11 per cent or less. At the risk of stating the obvious, the absence of gender perspectives in parliamentary debates, discussions and policies is both striking and shocking. In a television chat show (on one of the regional channels) on the issue of women’s representation in politics, a renowned professor said, “It is not a necessary to have reservation for women in Parliament. The objective can be achieved even if we have gender sensitive men in politics”. This is tantamount to saying that we do not need representation from Dalits and Adivasis and so on and that it would be right to exclude these communities and replace them with a ‘sensitive’ representation.
The movement for equal female political representation in the Indian Parliament, which commenced two decades ago, is still awaiting fruition. After many obstacles in the Parliament, the Women’s Reservation Bill, providing for 33 per cent reservation of seats for women, was passed in the Rajya Sabha on March 9, 2010. This was the first ray of hope. With the 2014 general elections in sight and the possibility of a new political landscape in the country, the women’s rights groups lobbied to pass the Bill in the 2014 winter session of Parliament. A round table discussion on advocacy strategies for the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill was organised in New Delhi. The meeting had brought together bureaucrats, academicians, NGOs, community representatives, funding agencies and women rights activists together. An alliance was formed to plan and execute the strategies. The alliance reached out to political leaders to inform them of the Bill, face-to-face meetings were held with political leaders, a gender manifesto was developed for political parties and distributed, petitions were filed; campaign, rallies and press conferences were held; a social media campaign was run at both the state and the national level. The election manifesto of the present NDA government also focused on ‘not 33 per cent but 50 per cent’. The alliance was promised complete support from all political leaders but the Bill was not passed in the Lok Sabha in 2014.
But since coming to power, the government has mostly played hide and seek with the WROs. These organisations are now embarking upon an active signature campaign expressing their deep concern of the neglect of the Women’s Reservation Bill by the present government on the excuse of ‘the lack of political consensus’.
The national alliance for “#ab33nahi50” is championing the cause with more and more participation from religious groups, youth forums, dalits groups, etc. In 2015, the alliance staged a silent march and dharna at Jantar Mantar in Delhi as an expression of their concern. A nationwide signature campaign was initiated again in 2015 to garner more support for the cause. A memorandum was drafted for the parliamentarians, ministers and other political leaders. In 2016, the alliance met with the Delhi Chief Minister and the Chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women; both endorsed the Memorandum for passing the Women’s Reservation Bill.
No rules of Parliament say that a bill can be passed only after arriving at a consensus. But for consensus to be arrived at, the issue has to be in the public domain for discussion and debate. Sadly, it does not find a mention in any of the political discussions. It is high time that the issue of women’s rightful participation in the decision-making forums is brought back for discussion and decided upon. The women of the nation demand that the Women’s Reservation Bill be introduced, discussed and put to vote in the Lok Sabha to begin a new era in the legislative history of the country. Let’s keep our promise to the women of India!
Endorsing the Memorandum to the Parliamentarians
And tweeting to the Prime Minister #ab33nahi50 from July 15 to July 18, 2016.
Written by: Rajini. R. Menon Regional Gender Coordinator - Gender Justice, Oxfam India
1http://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011census/population_enumeration.aspx accessed in July 2016
2 Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Jammu Kashmir, Jharkhand, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal
3http://eci.nic.in/eci_main1/ElectionStatistics.aspx as cited in http://genderinpolitics.org/mps-year-wise/ accessed in May 2016
4 Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, http://eci.nic.in/eci_main1/ElectionStatistics.aspx as cited in http://genderinpolitics.org/mps-year-wise/ accessed in July 2016
http://genderinpolitics.org/mps-year-wise/ accessed in July 2016
5 http://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/61-women-make-it-to-lok-sabha-in-2014-against-59-in-2009--44447 accessed in July 2016.
6 http://genderinpolitics.org/statewise-trends-of-women-mlas-in-state-legislative-assemblies/ accessed in July 2016.
7 Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Haryana, MP, Punjab and West Bengal
8http://genderinpolitics.org/statewise-trends-of-women-mlas-in-state-legislative-assemblies/ accessed in July 2016
9 http://www.indiatvnews.com/news/india-assembly-polls-2016-surge-in-female-contestants-not-mlas-330534 accessed in July 2016.
http://eci.nic.in/eci_main1/ElectionStatistics.aspx (Accessed in July 2016)
Study%20on%20EWRs%20in%20Panchayati%20Raj%20Institutions.pdf accessed in July 2016.
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