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Women Empowerment In India : A Case of Political Reservations

By Dr.K.Vidyasagar Reddy

29 July, 2011

The Indian patriarchal society that dominates the social, political and economic life of people in the country has never encouraged its women in any field, except kitchen! Indian women are relatively disempowered and they enjoy lower status than that of men from times immemorial. Gender gap exists regarding access to education and employment. It is found that acceptance of unequal gender norms by women are still prevailing in the society. Fewer women have final say on how to spend their own earnings. Control over cash earnings increases with age, education, status and place of residence. Women's exposure to media is also less than that to men. Less said the better with regard to their political participation.

Of course, the principle of gender equality is enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The Constitution not only grants equality to women, but also empowers the State to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favour of women. Empowerment is one of the key factors in determining their success. Their development, status and position would elevate women in the society. Empowering women must be a united approach, a genuine cause that requires continued attention and recognition by all. Women are considered to be more honest, meticulous, and efficient and thus more and more companies prefer hiring them for better performance. But still, the state and society seem to be lagging behind in offering them political reservations that were long overdue.

Historically, the Bill's supporters say, women are deprived of their natural rights in India . Increased political participation of women will help them fight the abuse, discrimination, and inequality they suffer from. Its promoters say that the Bill was essential for active political participation of women. They also say that it would lead to gender equality in Parliament, resulting in the political empowerment of women as a whole. However, the opponents argue that the reservation would only help women of elitist nature. They gain political power, aggravating the plight of the poor and marginalised sections.

Of late, the Women's Reservation Bill has been a political ball for nearly a decade and half. It has always triggered heated debates within Parliament and outside. The proposed legislation to reserve 33.3 percent seats in the Parliament and state legislatures for women was drafted first by the H D Deve Gowda-led United Front government. The Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha on September 12, 1996 . Although it has been introduced in Parliament several times, the Bill could not be passed because of lack of political consensus.

Once the Bill is passed, one-third of the total available seats would be reserved for women in national and state legislatures, as is implemented in some of the local governments. Yes, 33.3 per cent seats in panchayat elections have already been reserved for women. According to several studies, experience of women's reservation at that level has been very encouraging. More than a million women are being periodically elected to the panchayats in the country. This is the largest mobilisation of women in public life in the world, indeed!

Political Opposition

Although various political parties have overtly supported it, some of their members opposed it covertly, because their male leaders would not get a chance to fight elections when those seats are reserved for women. Particularly, the Bill has also been opposed by politicians from the socially and economically backward classes. For, they argue that reservation would only help women of the elitist groups to gain seats, thereby causing further discrimination to the backward classes. Of all the parties, some oppose it latently; few others oppose it quite nakedly. For instance, the BSP, SP and RJD are opposed to the bill in its present form and want a ‘quota within quota' for women from backward and other classes as per their population figures. According to the RJD leader, Lalu Prasad Yadav, the Bill 'would deny adequate representation to other sections of society.' Thus, he favours 10 to 15 percent reservation for women. 'My party is not opposed to women's reservation, but the case of Dalits, backward classes, Muslims and other religious minorities should not be overlooked,' is his peculiar argument.

Whereas the SP leader, Mulayam SinghYadav favours making it mandatory for political parties to give 10 percent of election tickets to women from within. Further, he questions that if inadequacy of representation was the issue, why not reservation for Muslim women? Besides, he observes that if 33.3 per cent reservation for women was added to the already existing 22.5 percent for scheduled castes and tribes, more than 55 per cent of seats in Parliament would be reserved. Surprisingly, those who oppose the bill are saying that by asking for women reservation is perpetuating unequal status for them! But, the political supporters argue that provision of reservation for women is only for a period of 15 years. The idea of reservation is to create a level playing field so that women can raise their share in politics and society. Most other opponents say that it is better to create reservation for women in their respective political parties rather than in Parliament.

Prime Minister's Initiative

The Women's Reservation Bill providing for 33% reservation of seats for women in Lok Sabha and state Assemblies is expected to come up again in the Rajya Sabha soon. Meanwhile, affirming his commitment to women's empowerment, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh admitted that the government was moving towards providing one-third reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures. Inaugurating the women's leadership summit recently, he claimed that his government was committed to social, economic and political empowerment of women.

Further, he decried the low female literacy rate as well as the maternal mortality rate besides the extremely low sex-ratio. "The gender disparity on the economic front is reflected in the low female work participation rate of 25.7% as compared to 51.0% for males," he said. "While we have shown improvement in these indicators over the years, the progress has been much slower than what we would have liked," he said. Incidentally, the reservation for women in local bodies has revolutionised governance at the grass-roots level. Thus, the society is ready to providing one-third reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures in the days to come!

Status quo

As usual, the Bill was been referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice, and Personnel, which gave its report thereafter in December 2009. It recommended passage of the Bill in its present form and suggested that the issue should not be left to the discretion of political parties. The Congress-led UPA government cleared the Bill on February 25, 2010 . For such a bill to be passed, the Constitution laid out an elaborate procedure. Thus, even if the Rajya Sabha passes the bill its real blow will be felt only when it passes through the Lok Sabha.

Of course, it is difficult to say how the present coalition government, which is depended upon the support of opposing parties, will manage order in the Upper House so that members favouring the bill can vote without disruption or chaos. Political analysts, sociologists, social scientists, feminists and others have observed that if the bill became an act then it will be a revolutionary change since independence. To sum up, access to education and employment are only the enabling factors to their political empowerment. Perhaps, political empowerment would contribute to their overall empowerment. To do so would require us legislate over the issue that has been kept in abeyance for so long, lest half of our society would retaliate and teach us a lesson!

Dr.K.Vidyasagar Reddy (Research Associate) drafted this paper for the purpose of a seminar to be organised by the Centre for Women Development, Osmania University , Hyderabad . Email:[email protected]







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