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Sep 12, 2017

Women Representation in Political Decision Making: A Catalyst to achieving Gender Equality

Oxfam India   /   Sakti Golder, Research Coordinator

It is globally acknowledged that ‘gender equality and women’s empowerment’ are at the core of achieving development objectives, fundamental for the realisation of human rights, and key to effective and sustainable development outcomes. However, on the contrary, despite their “proven abilities as leaders and agents of change”, from the local to the global level, women’s leadership and political participation is restricted.


The 2011 UN General Assembly resolution on women’s political participation reiterated that “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.” Therefore, to eliminate the multi-faceted problem like gender inequality, a multi-pronged approach must be adopted; and among the various initiatives, political empowerment of women could act as a catalyst. Political empowerment could lead to opening more opportunities for women and as a result, create a level playing field for them.   


Globally, several international commitments have been made, for achieving gender equality and these have emphasized on enhancing women’s representation in political sphere. While the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) upheld women’s right to participate in public life, the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) called for removing barriers to equal participation. The Millennium Development Goals (2000) also took into account women’s representation in parliament to measure progress towards gender equality.


Over the past two decades, gender gaps have narrowed in various areas, viz., education, health, employment, legal rights of women, participation in governance, and so on. But, despite the improvement, substantial inequalities, with varying degrees, still persist across all the areas across countries. It would be noteworthy to mention that India is a signatory to all the international commitments mentioned above. However, India is far behind in achieving gender equality, especially in terms of representation of women in political decision making, among others. 


Representation of women in executive government and parliament is extremely low in India, both in absolute numbers as well as globally. Only a miniscule progress is observed in the entire post-independence era. In the cabinet, formed after the general election in 2014, there were only 5 women ministers out of total 27 ministers. India’s global rank is 88 in this regard as per the ‘Women in Politics Map 2017’, published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women.


Between the First Lok Sabha (1952) and the Sixteenth Lok Sabha (2014) women’s representation has increased from 4.4 per cent to 11.9 per cent (Chart 1). Similar trend of low representation of women is also observed in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) during the entire period of post-independence era. Women’s representation in Rajya Sabha has increased from 6.9 per cent in 1952 to 11.4 per cent in 2014 (Chart 2). Again, these figures are substantially lower compared to the global average of 22.9 per cent and Asian average of 16.3 per cent of women representatives in Upper House. Considering the share of women (49.5%) in the total population of India, their representation in Parliament represents a skewed statistic, which does not befit the world’s largest democracy.




India’s performance on female representation in parliament is also not satisfactory compared to the global average of 23.4 per cent and Asian average of 19.6 per cent of women’s representation in parliament, as shown in the Women in Politics Map 2017.



In this global mapping, India’s 148th rank is very low; and even several Asian countries, viz., Nepal (48th), Afghanistan (54th), Pakistan (89th), Bangladesh (91st), United Arab Emirates (96th), and Saudi Arabia (98th), among others, have fared far better than India.  


Out of 47 Asian countries, India holds the 31st position. Among 8 SAARC countries, India’s position is 5th and India holds the 4th rank among 5 BRICS countries. A relatively poor performance is evident, if India (11.9 per cent) is compared to the best performer Rwanda (61.3 per cent) in terms of women’s representation in the parliament.



As per the situation on January 1, 2017, it was observed that in 12 countries (out of 193) women’s representation in parliament was 40 per cent or more (see Chart 4 for details). Rwanda tops the list with 61.3 per cent women representation in the parliament.



Thus, it is evident that despite our constitutional commitment and several global commitments, India’s performance in political empowerment of women is dismal. However, since the early 1990’s, the 73rd and 74th amendments, which entail 33 per cent reservation for women in rural and urban local bodies, facilitated the entry of lakhs of women in the political arena. During the next two decades, there has been a dramatic change in women’s representation in local administration. It is also a positive sign to note that many states, namely, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and Tripura further raised the women’s reservation level to 50 per cent. Resultantly, it has brought more than 1 million women as elected representatives, including many from socially disadvantaged groups and even illiterate, into the political decision making process.  


Therefore, it is imperative that the government takes legislative and constitutional reforms to ensure women’s fair access to political spheres, especially in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) and Rajya Sabha (Upper House). There is an urgent need to bring back to the table the Women’s Reservation Bill guaranteeing 33 per cent reservation to women. An intense parliamentary discussion is necessary to bring the issue to the fore and greater political commitment is the prerequisite for achieving the objective of political empowerment of women.




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