September 25, 2017
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the valedictory session of the National Conference of Women Legislators. Source: PIB

WITH CONGRESS president Sonia Gandhi asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi to get the law on women reservation passed in the Parliament, the issue has gained momentum again. 

The Women’s Reservation Bill (now lapsed) proposed 33 per cent seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies. Though major political parties, including BJP, Congress and the Left, have always supported this move, several smaller and regional parties found it incomplete and inefficient in dealing with unequal status of women.

India was ranked 148 among the 193 United Nations member countries in number of women MPs. Overall, the percentage of women in parliaments worldwide barely rose from 22.6 per cent in 2015 to 23.3 per cent in 2016. India’s percentage is about half the world tally.

Past discussions on the issue, including those in the Parliament, have seen ugly spats with a section of leaders asserting that any quota for women should also have sub quota for backward castes. According to this analysis by Factly, the share of women Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha rose from 5 per cent in 1951 to 12.2 per cent currently, The current average representation of women MPs (12.15 per cent) is higher than the national average of women representatives in state assemblies (9 per cent).

The share of women MPs in the Lok Sabha rose from 5 per cent in 1951 to 12.2 per cent currently

The success rate of women–winners vis-à-vis contestants–has consistently been higher than men over the years. In 1971, the success rate for men was 18 per cent, half that of women (34 per cent). In the current Lok Sabha, the success rate was 6.4 per cent for men and 9.3 per cent for women. 

To deal with opposition to women reservation, experts have suggested an alternative of having women quota in political parties which would undoubtedly lead to more women on top leadership positions and also contesting elections. 

All parties have their women wings, but their say is limited to grassroots work. While India has various political parties pursuing caste and religion-based agenda, we lack a major women-oriented party. There are more exclusive women political parties today than earlier (14 in 2015 from just two in 2001), but this analysis by IndiaSpend shows that none of these parties could cross the 1 per cent threshold of vote share in the elections they contested and had to forfeit their deposits. 

The women exclusive political parties rose from two in 2001 to 14 in 2015 but all of those forfeited their deposits in elections

Women reservation during British rule

Reservations for women gained attention during British rule leading to 41 reserved seats in the provincial legislatures, as well as limited reservations in a central legislature in 1935.

This study paper  published in International Review of Social History gives a detailed account of the pre and post independence developments on this issue. The discussions on Constitutional reforms during 1920s and 1930s had women reservation as one of the topics but it took a back seat as categories of religion and caste, as is the case today, held greater value for the colonial rulers. In fact, suffrage and legislative seats for women were put in the category of “minor minorities” while religious communities like Muslims and Sikhs and low caste groups were considered the “major minorities”. 

Why Women Reservation: A Video

In the last decades of its rule, Britain granted Indians limited rights to serve as legislators and also pursued their policy of ‘divide and rule’ by giving special electoral rights to certain groups. This period also saw the emergence of national level women's associations, such as the Women's India Association (WIA) in 1917, followed by the All India Women's Conference (AIWC) and the National Council of Women in India (NCWI).

Though these associations lobbied for right to vote for women, they became involved in the issue of reserved seats for women in legislatures as well. The Indian National Congress opposed separate electorate and reservations for religious and caste groups and these women associations opposed similar proposals for women on the ground that such divisions were being create to weaken the united nationalist movement. 

During the second roundtable conference on Constitutional reform in 1931, a delegation from major women associations stated that “any preferential treatment would violate the integrity of the universal demand of Indian women for absolute equality of political status".

The Government of India, however, went ahead and reserved 41 seats for women in provincial legislatures, as well as limited reservations in a central legislature. The British, how ever, further sub divided the seats on religious basis, keeping certain seats reserved for Muslim women. 

The British government in India reserved 41 seats for women in provincial legislatures, and further sub divided the seats on religious basis

Despite their earlier protests, the women's associations made the most of the situation and in the 1937 elections 56 women became legislators, including 41 on reserved seats. Most, however, were relatively wealthy Congress candidates.

Women quota in local bodies

After Independence, the new government oWomen sarpanches during a training programme by Ministry of Panchayati Raj and UNDP. Source: UNDPnly retained the legislative reservations for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in the Lok Sabha at the Centre and Vidhan Sabhas in the States.

The Constitution also outlawed separate electorates. Thus women reservations were quite short-lived, but they gave elite, nationalist women a foothold in the legislative life. 

While the caste and religious groups continued to receive attention post independence, the issue of women reservation went down in the priority list. It was only in 1971 when a committee formed to gather new data as well as analyse existing information on status of women brought the issue back in national debate.

Besides the demand for caste-based subdivision of any such quota, another concern about possible threat to national integration arose.

The latter was countered by the quota supporters by terming ‘women’ as a category, not a community, and hence at no risk of isolated pockets. The committee also suggested that large number of women will in fact help break the exclusive class composition of this group. 

The committee’s proposal for local-level reservations saw light of the day in 1992 with enactment of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, reserving a third of seats for women in rural and urban local bodies to ensure greater representation for them in general and other excluded groups in particular, such as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Some states, such as Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, have extended the reservation of seats for women to 50 per cent. 

The quota supporters termed ‘women’ as a category, not a community, and hence at no risk of isolated pockets

Former Minister for Women and Child Development, Margaret Alva, viewed the thirty-three per cent reserved seats for women in the panchayats as a stepping stone to reservations in Parliament. "Let us start with the panchayats", she declared.

Though men continue to function behind the elected women candidates, reports like these suggest that women are also coming into their own, functioning independent of their male relations. A study of 165 panchayats in West Bengal found a marked difference between policy decisions of panchayats with female pradhans than those with male pradhans.

It was found that women participate more in the political process in panchayats reserved for women. In those panchayats, significantly more investments were made in drinking water infrastructure, recycled fuel equipment, and road construction. By contrast, in unreserved panchayats, more investments were made in education. Health workers were also monitored more closely in reserved panchayats while teachers were more closely monitored in panchayats with male pradhans. 

It was found that women participate more in the political process in panchayats reserved for women

Another study of 43 panchayats in Tamil Nadu found that women panchayat leaders invest 48 per cent more money than male counterparts in building roads and improving access. While women tend to spend more on improving infrastructure, men tend to invest more (1.5 times) in regular maintenance, such as repair of water and street lights (men spent up to six times more on installing lights).

With such varied preferences on civic amenities and services, village panchayats are bound to gain from both male and female leaderships, thanks to affirmative action of women reservation in local bodies. Can such a reservation at national and state elections also instill more diversity in policy making?

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