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We Desperately Need More Women In Parliament—But It Will Take A Social Revolution

Lobbying by a handful of activists isn’t enough.

20/04/2017 2:55 PM IST | Updated 26/04/2017 9:04 AM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images

A few days ago, Rajya Sabha Member Jaya Bachchan berated the BJP government with the words, "You can protect cows but not women." It took a woman to voice what was on practically every sensible individual's mind.

Representation of women in the national legislatures is extremely imperative. The 1994 Beijing Platform for Action asserted that the presence of women in political leadership roles redefines priorities by placing items on the political agenda that appropriately address gender-specific concerns. Further, a UNDP report highlighted how the presence of women lawmakers has a direct correlation with the passing of more liberal legislations regarding issues such as labour, healthcare, education, property and violence against women. Ergo, to facilitate a significant impact in policies, a critical mass of 30% women in national legislatures is considered fundamental.

To reach the minimum target of 30% a little more than the prevailing Indian feminist movement's "bottom up approach" is required.

Despite the necessity of a critical mass of women in the Parliament, India's record is dismal. In 1952, when India's first Parliament was elected 4.5% of the elected members were women. Sixty-two years later in 2014 when the 16th Lok Sabha was elected this %age increased to 12.15% with 66 of the 543 elected members being women. At 11.1%, the %age is lower in the Rajya Sabha where 27 of the 243 members are women. Moreover, in 1957, 1967, 1977, 1989 and 2004 India even witnessed a fall in the number of women legislators. The 1977 elections saw a mere 3.51% women elected to Parliament. Not only are these numbers a long way from the 30% mark, but they also lag terribly behind the global average of 25%.

Although the last six decades have witnessed a growth rate of over 7% in women representation, yet to reach the minimum target of 30% a little more than the prevailing Indian feminist movement's "bottom up approach" is required. The "bottom up approach" aims to create awareness and equality starting from the absolute grassroots level to enable women to progressively get elected at the top. This approach has seen minimal success outside the developed Scandinavian region. Even most of the examples outside the Scandinavian region are outliers. For example, Seychelles which has 43.8 % women in its national legislature is a rather strong matriarchal society which has not historically had a problem with gender equality. Another peculiar example is that of Cuba, which is a misleading case study because while there are over 40% women in national legislatures, they hardly have any decision-making capabilities. All the decision-making powers are in the hands of Cuban Communist Party which comprises 7 % women.

Over 80% of the countries that have achieved the critical mass of women in national legislatures have done so by using a combination of reservations, quotas, and special election rules.

The United States of America provides a perfect demonstration of a long and strong societal equality movement being inefficacious to achieve the goal of ensuring a critical mass of women in the national government. In America, the women's movement took root 150 years ago as a campaign for female suffrage. The campaign was initially successful in securing women the right to vote and equal political participation. However, in the subsequent years, a "bottom up approach" managed to achieve only 19.4% women in the American national legislatures. Moreover, most women representatives come from liberal states such as California and New York; several states such as Delaware, Mississippi, and Vermont have never sent a women representative to either house of the Congress. Currently, America lies at the 100th spot on the list of women in national legislatures behind unexpected countries like Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Ethiopia among others. At the current rate of progress, America would take about 500 years to achieve equality in the Congress if it continues to rely on the "bottom up approach". Dr. Nadezhda Shvedova illustrates that the reason for the above observed trends in America and India is the existence of a complex web of social, political and psychological obstacles that prevent women from breaking the glass ceiling and initially getting elected.

On the other hand, over 80% of the countries (especially those outside the developed regions of Europe) that have achieved the critical mass of women in national legislatures, have done so by using a combination of reservations, quotas, and special election rules. This method was popularised by Rwanda in 1994 which adopted a fixed 30% quota and then ensured the achievement of these quotas by earmarking and reserving certain seats as women-only. As mentioned by one commenter in the Harvard Kennedy School Review, the latter approach not only helped Rwanda reach the critical mass but also allowed women who gained prominence in the women-only seats to break the glass ceiling and compete in non-reserved seats. This then resulted in opening women-only positions for a new batch of female leaders, thereby facilitating parity in political representation. Apart from Rwanda, even countries amid turmoil, like Iraq, have reached the 30% mark by adopting a fixed constitutional quota and then mandating that every third name on the party lists be that of a woman.

Since promoting awareness and education might take several decades before the most minuscule of effects show, the need of the hour is a society-wide mobilisation for women's representation.

Considering elections in India follow the First-Past-the-Post system where electors directly vote for the candidates, the combination of a fixed quota coupled with reserved seats seems fitting. Nonetheless, things are easier said than done. A reform such as the one needed to ensure representation of women in the Parliament can be effectuated by a Constitutional amendment which would require tremendous support across the board. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that India has never seen an amendment which would shake the political landscape the way a Constitutional amendment for women representation would. While over the years, bills for such amendments have been tabled in Parliament, they have been opposed and ignored every time. The most recent bill called the Women Reservation Bill just completed 20 years of being in limbo. Opponents of these reforms cite absurd reasons such as the inability of urban women to represent rural women, the further perpetuation of the unequal status of women, and the diversion from larger electoral issues. However, as stated by the political scientist Drude Dahlerup, the obstacle such reforms face is that with the passage of time political actors in the country develop a sense of ownership which they are not ready to give up. Only immense societal pressure can facilitate the passage of such reforms.

The feminist movement in India is already burgeoning. However, few members of the movement are even aware of the efforts required to increase representation at the national level. The earlier mentioned American female suffrage movement in the early 1900s, which called for a Constitutional amendment of enormous magnitude, involved millions of women, lawsuits, hunger strikes and even a militant movement which resulted in several arrests. The Indian movement for representation is not remotely close to this scale. At best, it has involved the tireless and sincere efforts of a handful of activists lobbying with patriarchal male lawmakers. As evidenced earlier, since promoting awareness and education might take several decades before the most minuscule of effects show, the need of the hour is a society-wide mobilisation for women's representation. A social movement can help create the necessary impetus to get a law for women representation passed. Further, a successful movement could even help push up issues like the safety and education of women in the political agenda.

In conclusion, I hope that in my lifetime I see a Constitutional reform that takes India a step closer to equality and a better democracy. If not, I pray that the current constitutional trends are proved utterly wrong, and India emerges as a real outlier.

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