• The Gender Security Project

How much longer do Indian women have to wait?

By Sneha Gupta

Source: Flickr / UN Women Asia and the Pacific

“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”

- Ruth Bader Ginsburg

India has slipped from the 108th position in 2018 to the 112th on the Global Gender Gap Index, horrifically placing 122nd (14.4%) out of 153 countries in political representation of women (Sharma, 2019). This abysmal position points us directly at the failure of the passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB) which has been introduced in the parliament time and time again, only to be unsuccessful each time. Women thus continue to exist in the peripherals of political life in India. This needs to be increasingly spoken about. This needs to change immediately.

The 73rd and 74th amendments provide one-third reservation for women in local and urban governments. This progressive legislature has proved to us that female leadership positively influences adolescent girls’ careers, providing them with new and exciting political opportunities and aspirations. Thus reservation for women creates a role model structure, where young girls are much more politically empowered and engaged than their older cohorts (Claytton, 2014). A randomized natural experiment conducted in 495 villages after the passing of the 73rd and 74th amendments, observed the diminishing gender gap in adolescent educational attainment (Beaman, Duflo, Pande, Toplava, 2012). It would be safe to say that women representation in local politics brought about progressive changes in aspirations for young girls and has the potential of creating exponential progress and inclusivity, if extended nationally. Despite the successes seen at the local levels, the WBR remains absent from the realm of national politics, suffering from male influenced bureaucratic crossfires. This is due to a combination of factors, all of which can be overcome if there is a will to do so. A will that is completely absent in a male dominated parliament.

The main argument emphasised against the WRB revolves around the alleged risk to caste and religious minorities. Regional parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Janata Dal United accused the bill of favouring only upper class and caste women while reducing opportunities for women from backward classes and castes. In response, women groups in support of the bill highlighted that these very men have never worked toward promoting greater representation of women within their parties (Grewal, 2019., Krook, 2005). Ada Grewal has accurately pointed out the importance held by caste and minority-based parties. National parties cannot pass a bill which is in direct opposition of the views of these regional parties because they have a dedicated vote bank, and thus are instrumental agents in order to retain power(2019). I cannot disagree with the fact that the proposition of gender quotas is controversial. However, it is a reality that ‘women’ as a group at all intersections of different castes and classes, are generally the most politically vulnerable having the least political opportunities. I believe that on the basis of this reality, we should move toward gender quotas keeping in mind caste and class representation as we go along. If we don’t take this first step towards an inclusive tomorrow, then are we not traversing backwards instead of forward by blatantly refusing to secure representation for any and all women in national politics?

Dhanda (2000) introduces her readers to Kishwar, one of the ardent opponents of the WBR, who believes that a legislature advocating reservation for women would inevitably lead to nepotism which would result in the biwi brigade. Dhanda also brings in an adequate and practical response to Kishwar’s argument, by highlighting the prevalent nepotism already existing in Indian politics, thus pertinently questioning how the entry of women in national politics would be somehow especially and differently harmful?

While these arguments dominate the debate against passing the WRB, the actual and unstated reason for the failure of passing the WRB is the enduring patriarchal system, which is based on the belief in male superiority and domination. The omnipresent patriarchy in India, places women inside the house and not as leaders of the country. Men are threatened that they will lose out on seats in the national parliament, that they feel are rightfully theirs. If the WRB does finally get passed, then it would mean the loss of approximately 145 seats, and this fear forms the foundation of the WRB’s opposition (Dhawan, 2008).

The extreme and violent opposition is proof of the extent to which men are threatened by the WBR. Mulayam Singh Yadav, a leader of the Samajwadi Party (SP) stated that if more than 10% of the parliament constitutes of women who are unquestionably inexperienced, then it would endanger the security of India (Grewal, 2019). This same man snatched the bill from the speaker and tore it to bits, on July 13th 1998 (Hindu, 2010). Infact snatching papers from ministers who stood in favour of the Bill became common. The narrow minded views about women continue to oppress the very agency of women. Sharad Yadav from Janata Dal United questioned if people actually think that women with “short hair can speak for women, for our women..” (Hindu, 2020). In 2010, Arun Jaitley from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shared that he felt like he was playing a role in the history of the making of the WRB, but has not since been heard about making that “history” a reality. Our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi continues to remain silent on the subject (Wire, 2016). These radical acts to ensure women continue to be irrationally and intentionally left out of our nation’s political leadership should be our wake up call, motivating us to fight for women’s reservation in the national parliament and state assemblies with even more force.

Apart from the prominent success we have observed from reservations of seats in our own Panchayati system, we can learn from other nations of our increasingly globalised world. Gender quotas are rapidly and widely becoming the norm across the globe. The first country that adopted a national gender quota was Argentina, in 1990, increasing women’s representation in the Chamber of Deputies by 17% in the following election (Paxton, Kunovich, Hughes, 2007). In France women have been accepted as a group that deserve increased representation in national politics, because it ‘crosses all other groups, making it the universal difference’ (Krook, 2005). Clayton introduces us to the positive effects owing to gender quotas across African countries. Observations from over a decade of ethnographic research showcases that gender quotas have been pivotal in encouraging women to take leading roles in other spheres of Rwandan society (2014). On May 14th, 2019, the Mexican Senate ratified a 50% reservation for women in all government positions (Ghai, 2019).

None of these countries obtained adequate women representation in national politics easily or without a sustained fight. For instance, France took a span of thirty years to achieve women representation in politics (Krooks, 2005). Despite the hardships and challenges that will inevitably come in the way, we must take inspiration from the different struggles and victories to smash the patriarchy with resilience so as to achieve an inclusive political leadership in India: one that is not dominated by men, one that proactively welcomes women on board, to lead our country into success.

The narratives established under the Women, Peace and Security Agenda (WPS) are especially important here, as they directly emphasize upon the importance of women participation in policy and decision making bodies. For instance, in 2000 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, which focuses on an increase in women's participation with regard to decision making capacities in the context of ‘conflict prevention, conflict resolution and peacebuilding’ (Banerjee, Dey, Kioko, et al., 2010).

A report by the UN observed that after a decade since the resolution was passed women’s participation in peace processes continued to remain horrifically minimal. This close inspection of the failure of the Resolution 1325 led to Security Council Resolution 2122, which encourages member states to review national plans and develop funding mechanisms to further the work done by organisations that prioritize women’s leadership and participation in policy decision making, so that the implementation of Resolution 1325 is successful (UN Report, n.d.).

A global study was conducted upon the request of the Secretary General of the United Nations in response to the Security Council’s Resolution 2122 (Coomaraswamy, 2015). In this study, Ban Ki Moon the 8th Secretary General of the United Nations clearly regards women’s leadership and protection of women’s rights as an utmost priority, as he writes “our response should be unwavering support for empowering girls and women” (Moon, 2015, p. 4). This Global study puts forth recommendations for member states to collaborate with the civil society to ‘develop or revise national action plans for the implementation of resolution 1325’ (Coomaraswamy, 2015, p. 215).

Similarly, the UN Report on the ‘Key Actors For Women Peace and Security: Monitoring and Accountability (n.d.), states that while several stakeholders are responsible for the successful implementation of Resolution 1325, it is the main responsibility of member states to ‘ensure that global commitments and obligations on women, peace and security are integrated into domestic policies, laws, planning and budget processes’, thus recognising that members states are the ones who are primarily accountable toward the implementation of this resolution (UN, YEAR, p. 240).

These narratives prominently advocate for women’s representation and participation in politics to be a matter of high priority. Under the ambit of Article 25 of the UN Charter, the Security Council’s Resolutions are obligatory in nature, making it absolutely essential for all member states including India to follow them (UN Charter, Chapter 5). Importantly, India being the chair for the Commision on the Status of Women, sets the context for policymakers to rapidly take attention of the interminable delay of the WRB, in order to rectify the bill to include caste and class representations and pass it with immediate effect.


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