I, like many women of my generation, have grown up celebrating International Women's Day. Every year, I spend the day marching the streets with other women, raising slogans, reinforcing my commitment to women's rights, and claiming my place under the sun. Every year, it provides me an opportunity to be thankful to my mother and her mother before her, for their participation in various women's movements, for being dissatisfied by their marginalization and for challenging the status quo. What would my life had looked like, if they hadn't demanded rights for women - over their own bodies, within their own families, in free market economies and in the public domain.
India has been free of colonial rule for over 70 years and our Constitution protects our right to equality, yet women have never really been free. Our 'culture' and our 'society' treat women as second class citizens in independent India - an India in whose struggle for independence our mothers and grandmothers played a substantial role.
While the battle for gender equality is far from being won, we have seen significant progress since then. Sati has been banned, child marriage is illegal, property rights have been given to women, the domestic violence bill has been passed, and women's literacy rate is higher.
In early 90s came a big win. A major push towards equality through political participation. The 73rd & 74th Amendments to the Constitution mandated 33.3% reservation for women in Panchayats and Urban Local Bodies. Overnight it gave women a political voice and changed women's position in the public domain forever. More than 1.3 million constitutionally elected women, mostly from socially disadvantaged groups, took on the mantle of leadership to transform their communities and villages.
Over the years, women have described this as a big opportunity. An opportunity to bring transformative changes to villages in India. An opportunity to build an agenda which included women's issues beyond the practical needs of education, water, daycare, vaccination, birth control etc. It was also an opportunity to talk about women's land rights, access to justice, control over resources and most importantly gave women representatives a seat at the decision-making table. The last 25 years, however, have not been easy.
More than 1.3 million constitutionally elected women, mostly from socially disadvantaged groups, took on the mantle of leadership to transform their communities and villages.
At a recent conference in Delhi, a 46-year-old woman from a village in Rohtas district spoke very eloquently about the dismal state of schools in her village in Bihar. According to her, the teachers, more often than not, did not turn up, the students ran amok, resources were not allocated by the district authorities for maintenance of the school infrastructure and all her efforts to ask for accountability led to naught. Nobody listened to a woman, let alone a poor woman like her.
However, the Panchayat elections were around the corner and she decided to stand for it, only so that she would have an official platform from which she could ensure the smooth running of the village school. Pushpa Devi won the elections and became the ward member for her Panchayat. As an elected representative, she was able to ensure that the teachers came to school on time and the quality of education improved.
Once elected, women have moved forward to take charge of development in their communities. 'Finally the reign was in our hands. We could steer change as we wanted. For years, everyone took decisions without taking into account our needs. It was as if we were invisible. As if we didn't exist. Even animals fared better in our village', say women in a small Gram Panchayat of Rajsamand District in Rajasthan. Education, livelihoods, sanitation and water became the focus. Ward members and Sarpanchs monitored schools, teachers and the mid-day meals on a regular basis. Bridges were built on rivers so that children could go to school. Separate toilets for girls in schools were sanctioned by Gram Panchayats. Ponds were desilted and check-dams made.
Once elected, women have moved forward to take charge of development in their communities.
Elected women concentrated on their practical needs. It seemed that rural women would ensure that India achieved its Sustainable Development Goals. But participation in the public domain also brought an opportunity to influence change. Slowly the agenda expanded to include implementing MNREGA correctly, combatting child labour and human trafficking, counseling victims of domestic violence, putting rapists back in jail, working against corruption and demanding land rights.
There is no denying that affirmative action has been a key driver of women's representation and subsequent participation in political processes. This in turn has led to the much needed social and economic empowerment of women across villages in India. However, if we want to correct the historic gender imbalance in India, we need to ride this wave and increase women's representation in the Parliament (currently at a dismal 11.8%) and Legislative Assemblies. We must, therefore, urgently bring back the Women's Reservation Bill to reserve 33% of all seats in the Lok Sabha and in all State Legislative Assemblies. This was introduced in 2010 but the Lok Sabha, at the time, refused to vote on it.
There is no denying that affirmative action has been a key driver of women's representation and subsequent participation in political processes.
'Time is now!' We are at a pivotal moment in history. Globally, as in India, there has been an unprecedented solidarity around the # MeToo and #TimesUp Campaign. There is more and more transparency, but hardly any accountability. Surely, we need to continue the work of our mother and grandmothers before us. We need to pick up the baton to continue the demand for women's rights, equality and access to justice. We must demand #zero tolerance for sexual violence, discrimination and injustice. We must demand that men stand up for gender equality. And we must demand #33.3% in the Indian Parliament. In the words of Kamla Bhasin, 'Hum Lekar Rahenge – Azaadi'
Sriparna Ganguly leads the Dasra Democracy and Governance Collaborative. She has worked extensively on decentralized governance, leadership building of political practitioners, and policy advocacy. Prior to joining Dasra, Sriparna has worked as Director of The Hunger Project India, as a national coordinator for strengthening local governments at the Jawaharlal Nehru Leadership Institute, and in several FMCG companies. She specializes in building and managing large scale interventions and networks.
(The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.)