In the heart of India's democracy, where debates shape policies and decisions steer the nation's course, there's a glaring question that persists after 76 years of independence: why is the representation of women in politics still disproportionately low?
With yesterday's historic passage of the Women's Reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha, India stands at the precipice of a transformational change in its political landscape.
The bill, which guarantees 33% reservation for women in parliament, has been a topic of intense debate between the government and the opposition. However, it's essential to address the elephant in the room. Despite the adoption of numerous women-centric initiatives, progress in women's political representation has been sluggish. The bill is a monumental step towards achieving gender parity in our political landscape because as of now, women make up 50% of India's population, yet why the halls of power remain disproportionately male-dominated?
To address these concerns SheThePeople got in touch with Kanksshi Agarwal, Founder of NETRI Foundation, Chhavi Rajawat, India's youngest and only MBA Sarpanch, Dr Ramesh Menon, author and award-winning journalist, and Dr Sweta Singh, an Assistant Professor at Indraprastha University actively involved with the Network of Women in Media in India. Together, they shed light on the challenges preceding the passage of the Women's Reservation Bill.
The Slow Climb of Women's Representation
Over the course of 77 years, women's representation in the political arena has witnessed a mere 9% growth. This stark statistic underscores the dire need for proactive measures to empower women politically. Professor Ramesh Menon, a seasoned journalist, emphasises that the bill should have been enacted years ago when it was first introduced. He laments, "how politicians steeped in patriarchy derailed its progress," and underscores the critical importance of proper implementation.
The current Lok Sabha, comprising 542 members, boasts a mere 14.39% female representation, while state assemblies barely average 8% women MLAs.
Kanksshi Agarwal, the visionary founder of Netri Foundation, actively campaigning for the Women's Reservation Bill in a Special Session of Parliament, rejoices at the positive news of its passage. She underscores that although 33% representation of women in a nation with almost 50% female population is "not enough but a great start", it has already doubled the number of women in power in comparison to today, making an impactful difference.
Challenges Women Face: The Urgent Need for Change
While the Women's Reservation Bill is undoubtedly a significant step, it's crucial to recognise that it's just one piece of the intricate puzzle that addresses the multifaceted challenges women face daily. Dr Sweta Singh delves into the origins of these issues, pointing out how "policy decisions taken by political representatives" over the years have significantly contributed to their exacerbation. Kanksshi echoes this sentiment while highlighting a major issue that women have faced from time immemorial - the lack of accessible healthcare facilities.
Despite progress in various domains, access to quality healthcare remains a monumental challenge for countless women. Additionally, the budget allocated for women's healthcare remains relatively low, causing critical concerns to be either overlooked or addressed inadequately.
Furthermore, women's employment in India currently hovers at an all-time low. The safety, productivity, and professional growth of women in the workplace hinge upon better legislation. For women, the path to financial independence in this country is inextricably linked to their safety. Alarming statistics reveal that crimes against women are on the rise, necessitating women to prioritise their safety, even at the cost of their financial autonomy. Kanksshi passionately highlights the prevailing mindset, that "Women live on a safety schedule," making safety a paramount concern in their daily lives.
Violence against women is not limited to domestic settings but seeps into public places and workplaces. Kanksshi sheds light on how women tend to group together, even when visiting restrooms. While this practice might appear trivial, it underscores a deeper issue. It's a manifestation of women's natural inclination to "create their own private spaces within public spaces" due to the lack of safety resources and enduring prejudices in our society.
Dr Sweta Singh emphasises the role of biases, coupled with ineffective policies, in perpetuating these challenges. She calls for a profound examination of the "toxic masculine culture" that persists in our daily lives, restricting women's voices and space. The importance of media representation of women in politics and giving them the platform to voice their concerns is highlighted as a key factor in breaking these biases.
Susan Thomas, a former Indian Revenue Service Officer, underscores the world of sexism women navigate daily. She recounts her experience when she was the first woman posted in Sawai Madhopur, a place without ladies' toilets simply because there was no prior need. Her story serves as a stark reminder of the limited visibility of women in society. It raises the question: How can women "lean in" if they aren't even in the room? This underscores the vital importance of women's representation in parliament, which can delve deeper into issues beyond immediate priorities like safety, healthcare, and financial stability. It can shed light on issues like maternity leave, period leave, and equitable compensation packages, which are often sidelined due to deep-seated biases but warrant sensitive consideration.
The Power of Representation
Increased representation of women in positions of power is not mere symbolism; it holds transformative potential. The Women's Reservation Bill paved the way for policies prioritising women's healthcare, higher employment rates, and safer environments. Women in leadership roles can champion policies that directly address the challenges faced by women in healthcare, employment, and safety.
Dr Sweta Singh echoes the wisdom of Esther Duflo, highlighting that it takes a unique brand of wisdom to select women leaders in the first place. Her message is crystal clear: women bring a distinctive perspective to the realm of politics, and their presence therein unquestionably yields a transformative impact.
Moreover, when women ascend to positions of authority, they become catalysts for a shift in societal attitudes and a reevaluation of stereotypes. Kanaksshi Agarwal emphasises the impending 'Role Model Effect,' poised to reshape societal behavior. She cites a noteworthy transformation in our collective mindset regarding women; as she aptly puts it, "a significant segment of society is finally becoming comfortable with the idea that women are human beings." Even this realisation has been a hard-fought victory.
Chhavi Rajawat, a compelling exemplar of a role model for women, shares her experiences as a Sarpanch in her village. "Men gradually paid heed to her words because of her position of power, and this seismic shift in mindset led to improvements for women, youth, and children," she affirms. Her journey is a testament to the behavioural and attitudinal changes that occur when women are in power and wield it responsibly. Chaavi also emphasises that biases against women can be eradicated with more women in power, emphasising that "The larger the voice, the bigger the impact. Perspectives need to be heard for perceptions to change," emphasizing the importance of such initiatives and platforms.
The Women's Reservation Bill of 2023 constitutes a momentous stride towards realising gender parity within India's political arena. Anchored in history, propelled by constitutional processes, and aimed at reshaping the tapestry of political representation, this bill holds the promise of a more equitable and inclusive democracy. While implementation may take time, the trajectory is set, and the nation is poised for a transformative journey towards empowering its women.
Views expressed by the author are their own
Suggested reading: Govt Tables Women’s Reservation Bill; Here’s How Women See It