Women’s groups in India have stepped up their campaign for a law that can ensure fairer representation in parliament.
Women are hugely underrepresented in India’s government – a situation they say is preventing the formulation of effective policies for women.
From New Delhi Bismillah Geelani reports on demands to pass a law, 10 years in the making, to put such a quota in place.
Fifty seven-year old Santosh Ahlawat is a member of parliament from the northern state of Rajasthan.
She is currently the lone woman MP from the state and the first ever woman elected from her constituency.
From a small village to national politics, Ahlawat’s political journey has been spectacular, and challenging.
When she first started at the village council, there was very limited infrastructure – some schools didn’t even have classrooms.
“It was very challenging to turn the situation around. People often mocked me, they would say, ‘She is a woman what can she do?’ It was sometimes very humiliating but I took it all in my stride and moved on because I had come with a mission, I had to prove that women are equally capable,” says Ahlawat.
Before joining politics, Ahlawat worked as a social activist – setting up schools for poor children and raising awareness about various issues.
Her fight against rampant female feticide was especially remarkable.
“The gender ratio in our district was so skewed there were only 650 girls for every thousand boys. It was an alarming situation,” she says.
It was also an issue that was personal for Ahlawat.
“I identified with the problem more personally because as a child I had also faced rejection,” she explains, “My parents had a son before me but he did not survive, they were expecting the second child also to be a son but my birth came as a bad news and the entire family was upset.”
Ahlawat says it was a tough fight, but with a strong team they launched an effective campaign.
And the latest census shows a marked improvement in the district, with the number of girls now at 950 per one thousand boys.
Ahlawat also serves as a member of the Parliamentary Committee for Women’s Empowerment.
But with women hugely underrepresented, women’s empowerment remains a distant dream.
Women lawmakers currently hold a mere 11% of the total parliamentary seats. Ahlawat believes that increasing women’s representation through affirmative action is a must.
“Men and women are like two wheels of a vehicle if you strengthen one and keep the other weaker there will be imbalance, which can be dangerous. Women have to be brought on par with men,” she says.
But political parties have not yet to reach a consensus on the quota issue.
The Women’s Reservation Bill that seeks to reserve 33% of total seats in parliament and state legislative assemblies for women has been awaiting parliamentary approval for more than a decade.
Shamina Shafiq, a former member of National Commission for Women blames the patriarchal mindset of politicians for the delay.
“Unfortunately, the patriarchal mindset extends to every and anybody who is sitting in position, this is how we women perceive it,” she says, “And that’s why perhaps despite all their differences all the political parties unite when it comes to not giving power to women.”
Women’s groups have now intensified their campaign and are demanding the government pass the Women’s Reservation Bill immediately. They have also raised their demand from 33% to 50%
They argue the current government has absolute majority in parliament and no longer needs a consensus to get the bill through.
Gargi Chakravarty is president of the National Federation of Indian Women.
“They have always used the argument of consensus as a delaying tactic. It is just an excuse to keep women out,” says Gargi, “They have passed so many laws, why are they reluctant about this? Because they know that when their will be more women it will affect policies and it will affect politics and that is what they don’t want to happen.”
Citing the example of neighboring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal where women already have reserved seats in parliament, Chakravarty says the condition of women in India is in stark contrast with the country’s status as the world’s largest democracy.
“It is true that women’s reservation in all these countries came after a long struggle and India being bigger perhaps needs a longer struggle but the fact that sixty five years after Independence we are still on the streets demanding our dues is in itself a matter of shame for any democracy,” she says.
As the main opposition party a few years ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was a vocal supporter of the women’s reservation.
As a government, however, the party has remained silent on the issue so far.