This article is written by Aayushi Gupta of Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab. This article deals with the status of women representation in the political sphere, causes for less representation, main women leaders, need for more women leaders and Women Reservation Bill, reforms and suggestions.
Over the past two decades, the rate of participation of women in the National Parliaments worldwide has incremented from 11.8% in 1998 to 23.5 in recent times. But we still have a long way to go to ensure equitable and fair representation to women.
Women leadership in Indian politics
When we talk about the participation of women in Indian Politics, it usually reverberates with misogynist rants proscribing women and their leadership skills. They are often seen as irrational, indecisive, and even imprudent. And yet, women are marking their presence felt in national and international politics.
At a time, when politicians like Jacinda Ardern, PM of New Zealand, are marking their presence by transforming the world opinion, Indian politics still remain within the clutches of misogynist men who refuse to share the limelight with women. She has offered an effective and powerful model of leadership incorporated with compassion and strong political determination. Within the span of a week, she was able to amend the gun laws in the country in the wake of a mass shooting at Christchurch, while also showing sensitivity and support to the wounded communities.
There are immense examples of women nailing at this job. Much of the credit for the removal of Sudanese Dictator Al-Bashir, goes to women who played distinguished roles in the uprising against him. There are several women, who didn’t participate in electoral politics directly but made a profound impact on the political system. For example, Medha Patkar, who led the Chipko movement, made a tremendous impact on the political system, by leading a women-dominated social movement. Vandana Shiva is one such woman, who is attributed to the promotion of eco-feminism and food sovereignty in India. She started Navdanya as a program for the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology (RFSTE), which provided direction and support to environmental feminism. Wangari Maathai was an infamous Kenyan social, political, and environmental activist and the first African woman to be bestowed with the Nobel Prize.
The participation of women as political leaders is not only low in India but around the world. As of now, only 24% of the global legislative members constitute women. And India, out of 193 countries, stands on 150th position in having the total percentage of women as legislators. In the lower house, women constitute 12.6% of total members and in the upper house, they constitute 11.5% of total members. What is more surprising is the fact that the least developing countries like Bangladesh stand in a better position than developed and developing countries like India in giving leadership to women. Rwanda tops the table with 62% of its legislators as women while India languishes at the bottom spots just above Liberia. What is more striking is that barely a decade after the genocide in Rwanda, women constitute more than 50% of its total legislators, in contrast to India, which was actually the world’s second state to have a woman as the Head of the State. Even after being elected to prominent positions, women’s political skills and competency are questioned repeatedly.
The number of women elected in the Lok sabha has grown over the years, from 52 women in the 15th Lok Sabha to 78 women in the current one. But what is significant is that the numbers are growing eventually, but it is not changing on a very positive note. A country like India which has had a significant history of women leaders in the national movement is performing only slightly better than countries like China and Hungary. While the world boasts of many great leaders like Jacinda Ardern, yet women don’t seem to be present in sufficiently large numbers in electoral politics and representative institutions. What could be the reasons?
- Lack of political knowledge: Most of the women are unable to participate in politics is due to the fact that they don’t possess adequate knowledge for the same. States like Uttar Pradesh present alarming figures that around 85000 women are unable to vote in each constituency as they aren’t registered as voters. Most of the women in the country don’t know how politics work, how the institutions govern the people and themselves.
- Household and marital barriers- Women’s voices are left unheard of in their own households. Technical and other ancillary works are supposed to be done by men while women are supposed to perform only the household chores. And most of the women are not allowed to work after marriage. In fact, even in the usual course, they are denied the basic opportunity to work. While even in household chores, they don’t receive help from their relatives, so they are left with no time to do anything. Generally, women in India experience varying degrees of exclusion because they are forced to succumb to the societal norms of marriage and motherhood and also due to obstructions imposed by the lack of access to public life.
- Safety issues- Women, most of the time, don’t feel safe to work outside because of the safety issues. Most of the news that we hear, regarding the alarming number of rape, eve-teasing cases, makes the women feel unsafe to work outside.
- Religion- Even our religious practices are reflective of our male-dominated political system. The politics is supposed to be a male-dominated area and women are not supposed to participate in state affairs. The word Politics draws its roots from the Greek word polity, which has often been presented as a male-dominated affair or gathering.
- Socio-cultural norms and traditional structures- Another set of obstructions is presented by the entrenched social and traditional structures that create certain patterns of disempowerment and privilege like caste, gender, religion, sexuality, disability, and many more. Despite several provisions like the universal adult franchise, reservations, and limited opportunities, these long-held social, cultural, and traditional norms bar the women from participating in the electoral process-both as contesting candidates and voters. These discriminatory laws, practices, and structures discourage women to participate and become leaders. And also the disproportionate effect of poverty on women is one of the reasons.
- Political Parties- They tend to ignore the hard work of women party workers, who work at the grassroots level, setting aside most of their time, performing tasks like door-to-door campaigning, community networking, and that of organization. What happens after that is when it comes to choosing the face of the party and leaders, the women tend to get belittled and they are not elected for the same, as the face of the party and the leader should be masculine. It is unfair that parties draw upon the diligence and labour of female party workers while excluding them from contesting elections and getting a shot at positions of power.
- Structure of the institutions- The institutions, be it private or public, tend to be discriminatory. Women are often not given proper medical attention. And what is scarier is that in many of the states girls are actually killed in the mother’s womb or after their birth, let alone the opportunity for political representation. Women are not provided with good educational opportunities as well. And even political institutions and structures are exclusionary and discriminatory. Indian women face many obstacles while making their presence felt in the Indian political system. The institutions- be it in the private or public sphere such as family, educational and religious institutions, and even the courts- regulate women’s way into the political arena. It is also because of the gendered nature of violence and politics that women are not given enough opportunities. The gendered nature of violence even on digital platforms and social media inhibits women from seeking or gaining representation in the political sphere.
- Lack of incentives or role models- It is also due to the fact that women are not given enough incentives to participate in the electoral process. Lack of awareness and incentives leads to low women participation. And also, there are not enough role models who can inspire women to participate in the political field.
- Lack of resources- Indian women- like any other women in different parts of the world- have less time and fewer resources than the other gender due to the gendered division of reproductive as well as domestic labour. Even when women are able to access formal political power, it is not always coupled with considerable political participation. This is because the informal homosocial networks remain strong and constantly work to keep women out of the political reach.
India is far behind these countries like Bangladesh and Rwanda in the total percentage of women legislators. Despite these countries being less developed and having had a recent history of violence, as in Rwanda, these countries have more women legislators as compared to developed and developing countries like India and China. India has had a glorious history of women leaders in the national movement, but it performs significantly poorer than these countries. It’s not that women are incapable or indecisive to perform in politics. It’s just that they aren’t given enough opportunities to represent themselves as leaders. When women are given opportunities, they perform differently and even make some prominent changes in the system as well as in society.
It’s mainly the political work of women that have contributed to the expansion of women’s rights in countries around the world over the years. When it comes to Indian women’s political role, the movement against dowry deaths, domestic violence, custodial rape still serve as important milestones for the nation. Numerous women political workers and activists have led campaigns for better health, sanitation, and education in the country. The landmark 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts that provide for 33 per cent of reservation of seats for women in the local government institutions have opened up large possibilities for women to participate in the political processes in the country.
Over a million women were able to join formal political processes for the first time ever. The participation of women in the processes has been accompanied by a refreshingly different approach to the work and it is also seen that they have set different agendas that proved to be more relevant to the lives of the citizens. The inclusion of women in these institutions has reported timely and efficient working, better tax collection, greater attention to development work, and so on. But this also reported a problem. While the men tend to get their wives elected as the representatives, they worked in place of them and women remained as mere nominal figures. Yet, all these instances prove that women can work wonders when provided with adequate opportunities.
History has stood the brilliance of women in politics, time and again. Even our country has had a long history of women leaders during the national movement. Women like Rani of Jhansi, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Kasturba Gandhi, Rani of Ramgarh, Savitri bai Phule, and other women made an impeccable impact on our society, and even our present times are replete with examples of women leaders in our politics.
- Sucheta Kriplani was the first head of the Women’s department of the Congress Party. She also spearheaded the Quit India Movement with Aruna Asaf Ali and other women. Gandhi was highly impressed with her political dedication and helped in her appointment as the Organizing Secretary of the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust in 1946. This year proved to be life-changing for her as she was elected as a member of the Constituent Assembly with the task of laying down the Charter of the Indian Constitution. In 1949, she was chosen as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. Later, she fought her way into becoming the first-ever woman to occupy a position in the Indian political sphere, by becoming the first woman Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.
- Indira Gandhi was a politician and a central figure of the Indian National Congress. She was the first and to date only female PM of India. She served as the Prime Minister of the nation from 1966 to 1977 and again from January 1980 till her assassination in October 1984, making her the second-longest-serving PM of India after her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. While she was the PM of the nation, she launched some radical programs for the poor and she also nationalized 17 of the banks. She was also known for her political obstinacy and unprecedented centralization of power. She went on war with Pakistan in support of the independence movement for East Bengal which led to the formation of present-day Bangladesh. This step increased the regional influence of India to the point where it became the leading power of South Asia. She also instituted a state of emergency from 1975 to 1977, where civil liberties were suspended and the press was censored. It is said that it was a harsh period of atrocities. But in 1984, she was assassinated by her own bodyguard after she launched the Operation Bluestar. The southernmost Indira point is named after her and the international airport at New Delhi is named after her. The largest university in the world, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), is in her honour.
- Pratibha Patil served as the 12th President of India from 2007 to 2012. A member of the Indian National Congress, she is the only woman to hold this office. She has also served as the Chief Minister of Rajasthan from 2004 to 2007. She has been felicitated with Mexico’s highest Civilian honour Order of the Aztec Eagle in 2019.
- Sushma Swaraj was a politician and government official who served in various legislative and administrative posts at the national and State level, Haryana. She even served as the leader of BJP in Lok Sabha. She was seven times a Member of Parliament and three times a Member of the Legislative Assembly. She was also the Union Minister Of External Affairs of India and became the second woman to do so after Indira Gandhi. With her tremendous work, she has actually helped many Indians and other foreign nationals to get back to their home country.
- Nirmala Sitharaman is an Indian politician serving as the current Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs of India. She has been a member of the Rajya Sabha since 2014. She formerly served as the Defence Minister of India, thereby becoming India’s second female defence minister and also the second female finance minister after Indira Gandhi, and first full-time serving Finance Minister. Prior to that, she has served as Minister of Commerce and Industry under Independent charge and has also been a spokesperson of BJP. Forbes magazine ranked her 34th among the 100 most influential women around the world in 2019.
- Sheila Dixit was a politician and stateswoman. She was the longest-serving chief minister of Delhi as well as the longest-serving female chief minister of any Indian state. She served for a period of 15 years beginning in 1998. She led the Congress party to three consecutive electoral victories in Delhi. She also received an award by the Indo-Iran society for her outstanding performance.
- Mamata Banerjee has been the Chief Minister of West Bengal since 2011 being the first woman to hold the office. She founded the All India Trinamool Congress in 1998. She has previously served twice as Minister of Railways, the first woman to do so. She was also the first female Minister of Coal, and Minister of State for HRD, Youth Affairs, sports, Women and Child Development in the cabinet of the Indian government. She has also been named as one of the most influential women in the world. She is a self-taught painter and a poet. She also received the Skoch Chief Minister of the Year award.
- Vasundhara Raje Scindia is also one of the most influential political leaders of India. She is currently serving as the National Vice-President of the Bharatiya Janata Party. She also held the post of 13th Chief Minister of Rajasthan from 2013 to 2018 and previously from 2003 to 2008, becoming the first woman to hold this post. She is also the head of the royal Dholpur family. In 2007, she received the Women Together Award by the UNO for services rendered towards the self-empowerment of women.
- Agatha Sangma is a Member of Parliament of India. She represented the Tura constituency of Meghalaya. She was the youngest Minister of State in the UPA 2 Manmohan Singh’s cabinet.
It’s not just these women, there are many other women like Ambika Soni, Supriya Sule, Jayalalitha, Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Mayavati who are counted as the most influential women in Indian Politics. Their political brilliance and schemes have been appreciated by many and at the same time criticized. However, their political contributions to the development of the country and its citizens cannot be left unnoticed.
Need for more women leaders
When asked the question, “what should be the position or status of women in politics?”, we come across several misogynistic rants denouncing women as indecisive or incompetent. Even in the previous times, the contribution of women keeping the polis together was left unnoticed. But when women were given opportunities in the political arena, they did wonders. When women started working in these Panchayati raj institutions and local self-government, their contributions were left unaccounted for. Even when women became top political leaders, their political capabilities and skills were questioned at each level. This discouraged women from even participating. There is clearly a dire need for more women leaders in the political arena.
The first purpose which electing more women leaders will serve is the shattering of the age-old stereotypes and prejudices. Women are always seen as indecisive, irrational, and incompetent for such works. But when more women leaders will be elected, this will definitely shatter all these stereotypes and will surely encourage more women to participate. Also, women don’t participate in the political arena because of the lack of role models. There are only a few women leaders who can be looked up to by other women as role models. So, if there are more women leaders out there in the field, other women will become more aware of such opportunities and it will inspire them to aspire for such positions.
Having more women representation in the political bodies is pivotal for many reasons, besides serving as a source of role models for other women. Elected women representatives in the political bodies tend to bring a sharper focus on what is termed as women’s issues. Generally, these issues are left unheard of when men are in power. It is generally perceived that when women are engaged and represented in significant leadership roles in a meaningful way, fruitful and more inclusive outcomes follow.
The all-embracing and impartial representation of women in public life is a quintessential element to building and sustaining vibrant and strong democracies. More political participation of women also helps advance gender equality and also have a positive effect on the range of policy issues and the solutions advanced. There is also strong evidence that as more women are elected to political bodies, there is a parallel increase in policymaking emphasizing quality of life and also prioritizing family, racial, ethnic, and women related issues. Women, more than men, tend to be highly responsive to constituent concerns and they also help secure lasting peace among the members. Active participation of women in the political sphere tends to generate higher citizen confidence in democracy, by way of their own participation. Women are also seen to work more across party lines and they also prioritize health, sanitation, education, and other crucial factors. Women’s political participation is also seen as a decisive factor for the development of an all-inclusive, approachable, and transparent democracy. Women must be encouraged and empowered to become a strong and decisive community and political leaders in order to fulfil the worldwide development goals and also to build strong and sustainable political systems.
Women reservation bill
The obstructions and barriers to entry for women legislators are much higher as they contend with several social, cultural, economic, institutional, and structural issues. One way to overcome these challenges is through quotas or reservations.
In 1994, India ratified the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendment, granting women ⅓ or 33 per cent reservation of seats in the rural and urban local self-governments. This provision opened up a number of possibilities for women to participate in the political process. Over a million women were able to participate in the political process with refreshingly different approaches leading to development. It was also noticed that these local governments reported better time efficiency, more focus on developmental goals, better tax collections, and greater equality. But this wasn’t enough because it had its own problems. The bigger problem was that there was no reservation of seats for women in the State and the national Legislatures.
Subsequent to these amendments, the Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced in 1996 which had the provision of reservation of 33 per cent of seats in Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Parliament, and the State Legislative Assemblies on a rotational basis. This bill was initially introduced in the Lok Sabha on September 12, 1996, by the United Front government of HD Deve Gowda. The main aim of this bill was to reserve 33 per cent of seats for women in Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies. The seats will be reserved on a rotational basis as per the bill. The seats would be ascertained by a draw of lots in such a way that a seat would only be reserved once in every three consecutive general elections. It sought to reserve ⅓ of the total number of seats for women from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The Vajpayee government pushed for the bill in Lok Sabha but it still hasn’t passed.
A Joint Parliamentary Committee chaired by Geeta Mukherjee reviewed the 1996 bill and made several recommendations. Five of these recommendations were included in the 2008 Bill. These recommendations were: reservation for a period of 15 years, quota-within-quota for Anglo-Indians, reservation in cases where the state has less than three seats in Lok Sabha, reservation for the Delhi Assembly and changing “not less than one-third” to as “nearly as one-third”. Two of the recommendations which stated the reservation of seats in Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils and sub-reservation of OBC women were not included.
The Congress-led UPA-I government again introduced this bill in May 2008. The 2008 bill was referred to the Standing Committee on Law and Justice. The committee failed to reach a consensus but had three recommendations. The recommendations were that every political party must distribute 20% of its tickets to women, the reservation must not exceed 20% of the total seats and also introduced quotas for OBC women. They also considered two other methods of increasing representation. First was that the political parties were to nominate women for a minimum number of seats and the second was that there should be dual-member constituencies, where women should contest for one of the seats. But the reservation of seats in Rajya sabha is not possible as it elects on the basis of a single transferable vote, which makes it impossible to reserve seats.
After its reintroduction, the 108th Constitutional Amendment bill was passed by Rajya Sabha on March 9, 2010, but it is still pending in Lok Sabha. Political personalities like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, Chirag Paswan have been some of the vocal opponents of the Women’s Reservation Bill. Currently, the bill is still pending in Lok Sabha. It will only be passed if the ruling government pushes for the bill, as they are in the majority. It continues to languish even after 24 years of its introduction.
The Women’s Reservation Bill certainly looks promising and its attempt to address the internal intricacies within the category of women by recognizing their deprivation points are bound to bear fruitful results. Such a bill would make sure that their narratives are voiced out, which are left unheard otherwise.
Need for the bill
Since the introduction of the bill, there has been absolutely no concrete effort made for the political inclusion of women. As per the data by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women, India stands on 148th position out of 193 countries in terms of representation of women in politics. Since then, the government has not made sincere efforts for the larger participation of women. Also, the Committee for the Empowerment of Women has a restricted ordinance and doesn’t perform any other function besides suggesting minor improvements to the already existing welfare programs. Women’s percentage in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha is 11.6% and 11% respectively, which is lower than almost all the nations. This bill is the need of the hour to further improve the political participation of women. It is imperative many of the nations have made legislative and constitutional reforms to ensure greater participation of women and they have been successful. So, the passing of this bill would surely help women to come out in the political arena and have a positive impact.
The lack of political representation of women in powerful positions in the National or State Legislatures hampers the focus required on women’s financial independence or their education, which may have helped them to break from succumbing familial or social ties. This bill certainly makes sure that unheard deprivation or narration of women is voiced out and gets placed in the open. Also, the greater participation of women in the political sphere would lead to a gradual breaking of a patriarchal mode of production, where men materially gain from the subordination of women in the private as well as the public sphere. The Women’s Reservation Bill is imperative for a more egalitarian and gender-just society, though we know that we have to walk many more miles before we dream of it.
Reforms and Suggestions
These quotas allow women to get access to positions of power, but some may say they also go against the spirit of merit-based elections in a democracy. In the bill, there is a provision of reservation of seats for SC and ST women, but there is no similar provision for OBC women, despite recommendations. Also, the reservations in local government may force the women to run for elections because of the pressure from the relatives to gain a position material benefit. Their spouses, the panchayat patis, often control the position, wielding power through their wives’. One of the reasons for the greater inhibition of women in the political system is the prevailing institutional structure. Political parties often tend to ignore the grassroots and ground-level work that women members do by sacrificing their time. But often their work is minimalized and left unaccounted for. And women are also not seen as the face or the leader of the party. It is pretty unjust to draw on women’s labour while excluding them from electoral politics. The political parties must also realize their role as protectors of women’s interests. Rudimental reforms at the party level will serve as an important and strategic complement to the Bill.
Women joining politics in India are drawn from diverse sections of society. While some are highly qualified and professional, on the other hand, some are poor and have no education at all. Thus, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work in strengthening women’s role in politics. Women are not a homogenous group- women belonging to different caste, religion, social and economic backgrounds, women with disabilities, and trans women have different experiences and have different impacts on the approach to politics. The Indian Parliament, in order to be truly representative, needs to draw more female members from the wide-sections of society.
Also, a change in people’s attitudes and social structure can help women get free from these historically entrenched barriers. Even women who are educationally or economically backwards can be provided with awareness or micro financial facilities to be uplifted. More self-help groups of women can help encourage and aware women regarding the political system and what opportunities it upholds.
The main problem with lesser participation of women in the political sphere is exhaustive familial ties. They will be able to take their rightful place in these political institutions when Indian men change their attitudes towards the other gender, recognize them as distinct persons and start sharing the household responsibilities with them. Perhaps, capacity-building workshops for men in this area would be a substantial way to bring about a qualitative change in women’s political participation. It is apparent that reservations are a great deal to increase the participation of women in electoral and representative institutions, but a positive enabling environment coupled with gender equality in terms of access to power and opportunities, and distribution of resources is fairly important. Even when women get elected their abilities and skills get questioned. The liberty to take action without pressure and work independently will make a great impact on their performance and will bring about a transformation in every sense. This can only come through ‘Awareness, Recognition and Demand” of the women, by the women and for the women.
There have been several efforts made for higher inclusion of women in the political leadership, but till the men are not sensitized and the social and institutional barriers are not shattered, there is still a long road ahead for their representation.
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