More than 48 per cent of India’s population is made up of women, yet they only account for less than 15 per cent of the legislators in the Parliament and state Assemblies. There’s only one Indian state at present — West Bengal — that has a woman chief minister while multiple Bills that would have boosted women’s participation in the political process have failed to clear Parliament. While the present Lok Sabha has the largest-ever presence of women MPs, the fact remains that women continue to be marginalised in the political stakes.
What Happened To All The Women’s Reservation Bills?
The first of the women’s reservation Bills to lose their way in the Parliament was introduced 25 years back in 1996. The last, introduced in 2008 in Rajya Sabha, was passed by the Upper House in 2010 but then lapsed at the conclusion of the 15th Lok Sabha after the Lower House sat on it for four years.
In between, in 1998 and 1999, too, Bills were introduced with the same aim of securing the reservation of one-third of the seats in the Lok Sabha for women by way of a constitutional amendment. But there has never been any consensus among political parties on the contents of such a Bill. In fact, when the then Union law minister was introducing the 2008 Bill in Rajya Sabha, the Upper House was witness to unruly scenes with some members reportedly trying to snatch the Bill from the law minister’s hands.
Despite this, reservation for women in the Parliament has been a stated objective of all major political parties. The BJP and Congress both had in their manifestos for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls said they would push for 33 per cent reservation of seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies for women.
However, in a reply to a question in December 2019 on steps taken by the Union government to bring such a Bill in Parliament, the then Law Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad of BJP, had told Lok Sabha that “the issue involved needs careful consideration on the basis of the consensus among all political parties before a Bill for amendment in the Constitution is brought before Parliament".
What Have Been The Issues Holding Up Such Reservation?
There is already reservation for women at the level of panchayats and municipal bodies with amendments to that
effect having been passed in 1993. But while proponents argue that reservation for women has had a positive effect on women’s empowerment at the grassroots level, it has been pointed out that reservation in a deeply patriarchal society like India only translates into rule by men by proxy.
It is the same argument that was cited by those opposed to the 2008 amendment Bill for women’s reservation in Lok Sabha. According to PRS Legislative Research (PRS), among the issues highlighted with such a Bill was that “it would perpetuate the unequal status of women since they would not be perceived to be competing on merit". It was also pointed out that such reservation would restrict voters’ choices or “reduce the incentive for an MP to work for his constituency as he may be ineligible to seek re-election from that constituency" if the reservations followed a policy of rotation and his seat was to be reserved for women in the next polls.
A blog published by Brookings talks about the experience of Pakistan, which has had 17 per cent of the seats in its National Assembly reserved for women since 2002. It has been found that reservation has led to political parties giving fewer tickets to women to contest from general seats, thus actually hampering the cause of women’s empowerment.
A study on local-level reservation for women in India found that more women participated in village council meetings when the chair was a woman and that policies were also more reflective of their concerns. “Village councils with reserved female leaders invested more in drinking water infrastructure, sanitation, roads, school repair, health centre repair, and irrigation facilities", the study said.
But it noted that, “while studies have linked female political representation to changes in policy-making… other studies show using gender quotas to increase women’s electoral representation may not be the most effective way to empower women and improve democracy".
What Have Other Countries Done?
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women make up at least 50 per cent of the total membership of the lower chamber of national assemblies in only three countries in the world, led by Rwanda. As for India, the Lok Sabha has 14.4 per cent of members who are women while the proportion in Rajya Sabha is 11.2 per cent.
The 2008 reservation Bill that failed to clear Parliament had sought to address the concerns of stakeholders related to upper caste women dominating the reserved seats and also said that reservation for women would cease to exist after 15 years of coming into effect. However, with consensus proving to be elusive, PRS said that “some experts… suggested alternate methods such as reservation in political parties and dual member constituencies".
The Brookings blog, too, refers to the reservation at the level of political parties, saying that the likes of France, South Korea and Nepal have passed laws mandating parties to reserve as much as 50 per cent of all tickets for women. But it points to the example of South Africa, which has managed to ensure a high level of women’s representation in the national assembly through voluntary adoption of quota by just one party.
The African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s biggest political party that has been in power continually since the end of the Apartheid era in 1994, took up the question of women’s representation internally even before it had won its first elections. While the party has seen its majority chipped away down the years, the South African national assembly has seen a high proportion of women with its lower house at present composed of 46 per cent women. The voluntary push for women’s representation is also seen as having rubbed off on other parties and Brookings reports that from 14.2 per cent in 1994, women made up 31 per cent of the opposition by 2009.
Thus, it cites the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) as holding that “in almost all political systems, no matter what electoral regime, it is the political parties, not the voters that constitute the real gatekeeper to elected offices" to argue why “fundamental reforms at the party level will serve as a necessary and strategic complement to the Women’s Reservation Bill".
“Even if the Bill is derailed further, it should not stop political parties from making internal structures more conducive to women entering politics," it says.