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The Missing 49%: What You Should Know About The Women’s Reservation Bill

Posted: November 12, 2014

As the Winter session of Parliament begins, we examine the state of the Women’s Reservation Bill; mooted to help women access Politics in spite of the many hurdles they face, are political parties serious about this bill?

It is rumoured that when Barack Obama visited India in 2010 and was taken for the first time to our Parliament, he asked jokingly if there was a separate space for the female Members of Parliament. What prompted that question was the overwhelming number of male MPs that he witnessed, the moment he stepped into the Parliament.

Of course it doesn’t take the visit of America’s President for us to realize and know that the political participation of women in India is woefully below expectations. India occupies a sad 117th rank in a global ranking of countries measuring the percentage of women in Parliament. Countries like Rwanda (63.8%), Mozambique (39.2%), Mexico (37.4%) and Kazakhstan (25.2%) are doing far better than our 11.4%.

The Women’s Reservation Bill (henceforth referred to as WRB) was first introduced in Parliament in 1996 by the Deve Gowda government. The WRB requires a Constitutional amendment to reserve 33% seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state Legislative Assemblies. It took the Rajya Sabha about 14 years to pass the Bill in 2010 and ever since, it has been languishing with the Lok Sabha.

The opposition to the Women’s Reservation Bill

The women’s movement had gained considerable momentum in the 1970s especially with 1975 being the ‘International Women’s Year’ and by the 1980s they were participating and demanding action on various issues such as rape, dowry, domestic violence and price rise. Therefore it was only obvious that they would demand for political equality along with social and economic equality as the three are inseparable.

So what has been holding up this Bill?

The chief opposition to the WRB is mostly two-pronged: one side doesn’t believe that women need ‘more’ political presence and the other side is demanding  reservation within the 33% quota. This request is specifically with respect to the ‘backward castes’ and minorities.

There are many positions that people have taken with respect to the WRB, but I would like to point out that reservations for backward castes and minorities within the 33% demanded is logical and vital and should definitely be taken into consideration. This country has enough evidence to show that regional and community-based political representation is an important expression of the issues and challenges of the oppressed classes.

If one looks at what is happening outside the walls of our Parliament we can truly appreciate the challenges that women face in order to (re)claim political space for themselves. The battle has been long drawn and the resistance has made it quite difficult for many women to jump into the foray and compete against their male counterparts. Misogyny along with the need for considerable funding are two major impediments for women standing for elections.

“Even capable women who have demonstrated excellent administrative and leadership qualities find it tough to mobilize funds for contesting elections”, says Amitabh Kumar of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research who has been actively working on the campaign for the passage of the WRB.

What is truly ironic is that all major political parties in India offered higher women’s participation within the party as an alternative to the WRB and yet the statistics on that is quite saddening itself. This infographic is a succinct portrayal of all that is wrong with how India treats its women in politics. The highest percentage of women fielded by any major party is an unfortunate 15.89% and an analysis of the larger picture reveals that for 49% of the population, only 8% nominations are considered sufficient insert disgruntled emoticon.

What we therefore have is a vicious cycle where on one hand parties are resisting the WRB on the grounds of promising more female representation in their ranks and on the other hand providing what can only be called a tokenistic gesture.

Womens Reservation Bill Timeline

 

What next for the Women’s Reservation Bill?

Ravi & Sandhu talk about how the present scenario in India is quite dynamic with numerous debates taking place on different issues related to women with a focus on violence against women, gender parity at work etc. These debates should be the impetus required to make women visible and provide the ideal platform for actual policy-making and implementation on these issues. The authors state that “at the very least, they (political parties) must ensure they meet the stated goals (of women’s representation) in their own constitutions.”

As things stand, if the Bill faces resistance again in the upcoming Winter session of the Lok Sabha, the government will have to walk on a political trapeze to reach a solution acceptable to all!

The RJD, BSP and SP have been consistently against the Bill in its present form as they have been demanding further reservations. With leaders like Sharad Yadav making par kati mahilayein references towards the entry of ‘certain’ women in to the Parliament, that demand won’t change anytime soon. The passing of the WRB is like a complex potion that needs astute mixing skills that creates a perfect product a.k.a a perfect WRB with majority consent.

An encouraging sign of things to come was when Sumitra Mahajan, our current Speaker in Lok Sabha, in her address at the 131st Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva this month praised India for granting universal suffrage before so many other countries and emphasized that India is pro-actively working for providing one-third reservation for women in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies.

Earlier on in May 2014, President Pranab Mukherjee in his address to the joint Parliamentary session made references to the WRB which is being seen as a positive sign by political analysts. The BJP’s numerical strength in the parliament should be harnessed by the party to push for the passing of this Bill.

Increased women’s political participation will steer policy-making in the direction of greater gender sensitivity and will create an environment where gender concerns become an integral component and not an ‘add-on’ to policy-making. More female MPs means a stronger lobbying power for important issues, schemes and initiatives.

I believe that the defenses for the WRB are quite convincing, now only if the ‘mighty’ would see the light!

Gender equality image via Shutterstock

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