//Women's Reservation Bill : Battling the bitter half

Women's Reservation Bill : Battling the bitter half

Neerja Chowdhury, Hindustan Times,December 12, 2006,

'Let us introduce the Women’s Reservation Bill this time.’ When Lalu Yadav uttered words to this effect at the UPA Coordination Committee at the start of the winter session of Parliament, his colleagues sat up. Sonia Gandhi had obviously managed to soften Yadav, who has all along opposed the Bill unless a sub-quota for OBC women was introduced. The change was, however, short-lived, as the RJD leader felt the heat from his own partymen. And now, having hit yet another roadblock, the Bill is not even going to be introduced in this session of Parliament.

Worldwide, countries with quotas have a high representation of women in Parliament. The  Unicef’s ‘The State of the World’s Children’ report, released globally on December 12, 2006 — with its focus on gender — has underscored the efficacy of reservation in political empowerment of women. Of the 20 countries with more than 30 per cent representation of women in Parliament, 17 are using some form of quota.

Not long ago, the Nordic countries had led the way. But little Rwanda has overtaken them with 48.8 per cent women in its Parliament. Following it are Sweden, Costa Rica, Norway, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Cuba and Spain. Even South Africa and Mozambique figure in the top 15. The countries at the bottom of the ladder are mostly Arab States, which have an average of 8 per cent women in their Parliaments. India stands alongside them.

There was a time when India ranked third, after the US and the former Soviet Union, but that was way back in 1937. Having secured limited franchise in 1919, which was expanded in 1935, women had thrown themselves excitedly into the elections that had followed.

The Unicef report also reinforces the view held by women activists — that women are better champions of bread-and-butter issues. Recent studies have found that women representatives tend to give priority to social issues. A recent research project, which examined the impact of reservation policy in West Bengal in the local government, found that in villages with quotas for women, investment in drinking water facilities was double that of other villages. The roads were in better condition. New biogas projects were introduced in 26 per cent of villages with a reservation policy, compared to 6 per cent in other villages.

The attendance of women in the village panchayat meetings also went up when there was a woman pradhan. In Rajasthan also, women pradhans ensured greater immunisation and increased attendance of girls in schools. The ‘piya ban gaye P.A.’ (husbands turn PAs) syndrome may still continue in some places, but there is also growing evidence to prove that women tend to bring an alternative perspective to politics.

The Women’s Reservation Bill has faced opposition of the kind that the Hindu Code Bill encountered over 15 years. Though stalwarts in the Congress opposed the attempt to modernise Hindu family law — the first President, Dr Rajendra Prasad, had initially threatened to withhold his assent even if Parliament passed it — the Hindu Code Bill was finally enacted as a series of separate Bills during 1954-56. But there is no end to the tunnel on Women’s Reservation Bill.

The criticism was open and upfront on the Hindu Code Bill and it generated a healthy debate in the country. With the Women’s Reservation Bill, the opposition is underground. No political party dares to oppose the principle of reservation, yet leaders in all major parties have tried to sabotage it.

Women’s reservation is not an issue which has excited a mass of women voters. But there are women, in professions, including the media, who have emerged as a pressure group. It is this group that parties do not want to antagonise. Many OBC/SC/ST members have been as antagonistic to the idea of sharing power with women, as upper castes have been to the idea of sharing power with them.

I remember the day the Bill was slated to be introduced in 1996. A senior Scheduled Caste MP stood at the main entrance of Parliament, shooing off party colleagues. “If you come in to the House today, I’ll make sure you don’t get a ticket next time,” he threatened those coming into Parliament. “Don’t you understand that the women will take one-third of our existing quota?” The idea was to prevent a quorum at the time of introduction.

The resistance to women’s reservation has less to do with gender bias than with a reluctance to share power. Radical pro-women legislations have, after all, been passed without difficulty, the latest one being the law against domestic violence. Given that the sword may fall on any constituency in the 33 per cent of seats that will get reserved for women, it may turn out to be Baramati, Madhepura or Gandhinagar.

The irony is that Indian women opted for the reservation route reluctantly. For 80 years they rejected the option, right from the time when a group led by Sarojini Naidu called on the then Secretary of State for India, E.S. Montague, in 1917, to demand voting rights for women at par with men; or when the Constitution was being framed; or when the landmark Status of Women Report came to be written in 1975. They wanted to make it on their own steam. They began to raise their voice in favour of reservation in the early Eighties when they realised how consistently they had been kept out of the political system.

Women comprise almost 50 per cent of the population but their number hovers around 7 to 8 per cent in Parliament. As far as state assemblies are concerned,  available data is very sketchy. This, at a time when they have broken every other glass ceiling.

But what adds insult to injury is the way the political class flaunts the Bill again and again, with no seriousness or sincerity to pass it. It is time they ended this charade.

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