By Neera Saggi
The Assembly election in Gujarat saw 126 women candidates win 12 seats. The scenario in 2017 is not much different than that in 1962, when 19 women fought elections and won 11 seats. The maximum seats held by women in the Gujarat have been 16, less than 8 percent in the Assembly of 182 members. This is not unique to Gujarat, but reflects women’s representation across India, both in state Assemblies and in Parliament.
In its 2014 election manifesto, BJP identified the Women’s Reservation Bill as a priority and assured its legislation in Parliament and all state Assemblies. In the past three years that the party has been in power, there has been no visible effort to see this Bill through. Former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi recently wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and requested him to get the Bill passed in the Lower House, thereby voicing a commitment that her party did not demonstrate when in power.
The Bill that seeks to reserve one third of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and in the state Assemblies has had a long history of numerous half-hearted and unsuccessful initiatives. It was first introduced in September 1996 by the United Front government when it failed to get majority. It was reintroduced in 1998 by the NDA and lapsed. Repeatedly introduced in 1999, 2002,2003 and in 2008, it could not obtain the required majority in both the Houses. Recently leaders of major parties have spoken in its favour, yet it cannot be said with certainty that when re-introduced, the Women’s Reservation Bill, will gain concurrence.
Considering that the Parliament is predominantly composed of male legislators, it is not surprising that the required political will to pass the Bill is missing. Most legislators perceive it as a threat that will force them to relinquish their seat.
One-third seats reserved for women will automatically replace an equal number of male legislators, as they would not be eligible to stand for elections from their constituencies. As the Bill threatens their ability to hold on to power, men have united both, obliquely and vocally, to thwart the bill politically. With the overwhelming political majority they have the ability to do so. The gender profile of the 16th Lok Sabha consists of 89 percent male members. It is even more skewed in the state Assemblies – of 4,128 legislative constituencies only 364 are represented by elected women legislators. In only nine state Assemblies the proportion of women exceeds 10 percent while in another nine it is less than 7 percent.
This is at variance from the political scenario that has evolved globally. Inter parliamentary Union (IPU), has compiled data from among 193 countries, where national parliaments exists. The average global representation of women in lower house is about 23 percent, which is almost double than the meager 12 percent that exists in India. Almost 40 percent, that is 78 countries, have more women elected to their national parliament than the world average.
India is proud of its very vibrant democracy and trying to find its place in the developed world, economically and socially. Yet fifty percent of its population is politically not represented by its kind in the highest decision making bodies. All the BRICS countries have a much higher representation than India — South Africa has 35 percent, China at 24 percent, Russian federation at 17 percent and Brazil has 15 percent. In this context it is ironical, that compared to the other four, India lags far behind and has even seen resistance to provide half its population equity and fair due.
Interestingly, an analysis of the IPU data does not throw any definitive correlation between economic development and women representation in the elected governing and legislating bodies. Least developed countries and even low-income countries have similar, or even higher number of women legislators than the global average. Even fragile and conflict-affected countries, which inevitably are economically distressed, have a higher proportion of women in parliament then India. On the other side of the spectrum, Japan, the third largest economy in the world, has only 9 percent women in its lower house while USA, which has the highest GDP, has one third less women representation than the world average. Surprising though it be, there is no evidence of strong correlation between women representation and economic development of a country.
Often it is considered that lack of education among women in India impairs their ability to contest elections and find their voice. This argument fails to recognise that there has been a substantial increase in the number of highly educated women without any significant increase in their numbers in Parliament or state Assemblies. Even globally it is difficult to substantiate any definitive correlation between higher proportions of educated women in a country, and their higher representation in elected bodies.
Russia and Hungary have more than 99 percent literacy among women, and only 16 percent and 10 percent women in their Parliament. So is the case with Maldives and Sri Lanka. Though Rwanda and Senegal have the highest numbers of women legislatures, the literacy among women is much lower than in other countries. Closer home in Kerala, where literacy among women is above 92 percent, women represent less than 6 percent constituencies, much lower than the national average.
Inadequate representation in India is an inevitable consequence of past gender inequity and it is ironical that country, which is modernising in many other respects, continues with this embedded discrimination. Opinion is still widely prevalent that women have little reason to venture into public sphere, and that men dominating this sphere are their guardians and benefactors. General consensus, and it exists even among women is, that men essentially know what is best for women and should continue to legislate on their behalf.
There has been little change in our thought process in spite of the 73rd and 74th Amendment to the Constitution that was legislated in 1992. One third representatives in the local self-bodies today are women and they have increasingly redefined the development agenda at the grass root, while establishing fresh priorities not considered relevant earlier by men. It also does not take into account learning from our neighbours and the world at large.
Our neighbouring countries, many of who have shared with us a common heritage and similar attitude towards women, have ensured a much higher representation of women in their lower house — Bangladesh and Pakistan 20 percent, Nepal at 30 percent and ever strife torn Afghanistan has a representation of 28 percent. In the Arab world this number is 19 percent while in Saudi Arabia, which granted women equal voting rights, as late as in 2015, women legislators constitute 20 percent of the national parliament.
The one factor that seems to occur among the countries with highest number of women in their parliaments is the high participation rate of women in work force. It ranges from 86 percent to 60 percent in Rwanda, Bolivia, Iceland, Sweden, Angola, Norway, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and above 45 percent, in Mexico Finland, Cuba, South Africa, Senegal, Namibia, Spain, France, Argentina, Belgium and Ecuador. Compare this with India where the women participation in work force has been steadily decreasing. In 1990, it was 40 percent and steadily declined to 23.7 percent in 2013-14. While it would be an unsubstantiated statement that participation of women in work force ensures a higher political representation by women, it decidedly appears to be a more conducive factor than any other.
The other significant commonality where women have higher representation is that most of these countries have either legislated quotas or party quotas for women. The database of Quota Project undertaken by IPU and the University of Stockholm demonstrates that the “use of electoral quota for women is much more widespread than is commonly held”. Fifty-four countries globally have legislated candidates quotas, while 23 countries have reserved seats in lower or single house for women. Some type of gender quota has been used by a majority of European countries to ensure that women constitute at least a “critical minority”. Closer home, Pakistan reserves 17 percent of seats in the Lower House, Bangladesh has mandated 14 percent of seats accordingly. In 2004, Afghanistan has mandated that 27 percent of seats in the lower house are reserved for women. Nepal reserves 33 percent seats for women in all its state institutions, including its legislature.
Many countries have adopted the concept of “mirror representation” that advocates that the “proportion of women in leadership should match the proportion of women in the population that they govern”. India has seen this quantum increase of women representatives in the local bodies after 1992 Amendment. Quotas positively and substantially impact women representation in the elected bodies. Slovenia, Belgium, Indonesia and many other countries have shown that the introduction of quotas can expeditiously raise the quantum of women in a country’s legislature. Almost all countries that are at the top and also those that have crossed the 30 percent threshold mark have legislated some type of quota. In 1995, Rwanda ranked 24th in terms of female representation, jumped to 1st position in 2003 after quotas were introduced. Reservation of 30 percent seats in legislature enabled the country to take the next leap forward, and today Rwanda has 61 percent women representation, highest globally. Conversely with no mandated reservation, even after years of democracy, countries like India, Maldives and Sri Lanka, have not been successful in increasing the number of women in their Parliaments. USA is another classic example of inability of women to rise in the highest political bodies without reservation.
Acrimonious resistance witnessed in India to the Bill is unseen anywhere else. Result of centuries of practice and anecdotes, decadent and inequitable attitude regarding the Bill that is presently being displayed in India needs a strong political will to address it. It has been empirically established that participation by women in higher echelons of decision making is crucial to change the quality of public policy and debate. Time is appropriate today as women represent 30 percent seats in local self governments for the last 25 years.“ While reservation did not make male villagers more sympathetic to the idea of female leaders, it caused them to recognise that women can lead”. To translate this experience on a national and state level is imperative and India policy makers now need to recognise this.
India does not have a history of grass-root activism. It has never seen classic protests like the one by Iceland women in 1995 that brought the entire country to a standstill. Political leaders are the gatekeepers as they control policy, legislation and nominations. In recent years women have increasingly reposed their faith in them and now look to them to take forward the women agenda. In almost all elections in the last decade, coming out in large numbers, women have out numbered men and exercised their political right highlighting their collective strength in the fragmented complexity of electoral numbers. Significance of this change in voting pattern cannot be underestimated.
This shows that Indian women have moved out of the political ghetto of caste and religion and are preparing themselves for the next leap of empowerment. It would be sagacious for all political parties, and especially the party in power, to recognize this legitimate expectation.
The 73rd and 74th Amendment with mandated women representation in local bodies has raised the position of India from 108 to 87 (among 142 countries) in the Global Gender Gap. This is mainly a consequence of improvement in women political empowerment, in which India today ranks among the top 10. If in this Winter Session of Parliament the Women’s reservation Bill is adopted, India will soon have the glorious distinction of being at the top position among all nations in the index regarding political empowerment of women.
The author is a retired IAS officer and Chair CARE India.