With the first week of Parliament come to an end, there is anticipation for the government’s agenda on gender equality and empowerment. The bill on Muslim Women’s Empowerment is about to be introduced next week which focuses on deterring talaaq-e-biddat (instant triple talaaq) in Muslim families. Yet another important legislation that received much attention before the session began is the Women’s Reservation Bill. A bill that has been languishing in oblivion since its introduction, till recently being brought up by Smt. Sonia Gandhi in an open letter to our Prime Minister, reiterating its necessity and relevance.
In the current global scenario where India is looked at as a serious competitor to developed and developing countries alike, it should be a matter of alarm that we rank at a dismal 108th place in the annual Global Gender Gap Index, behind countries like China at 100th and Bangladesh at 47th among many others. The report highlights the lack of political participation of women in the country as a major cause for the disparate gender gap. To put this further into perspective, closer home in the South Asian region, out of the 8 SAARC countries, India’s position is a mediocre 5th after countries like Nepal and even Afghanistan.
The question we need to ask at this juncture is whether reservation for women in parliament is enough. If the end to be achieved is to have greater representation of women in roles of socio-political leadership, then ensuring their representation in roles of political leadership needs to be just as important. Our focus needs to be on expanding, not just in terms of seat reservation but also in roles of political party leadership and membership. A modern political party needs to have methods that encourage participation of women and remove structural barriers for women in politics where money and muscle power rule are known to rule.
The pending bill proposes to reserve 33 % of all seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies. It had been passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2010 and needed to be passed by the Lok Sabha and fifty per cent of all state legislative assemblies, but lapsed as a result of not receiving due assent.
An alternative or consecutive form of reservation could be in the form of reserving membership and candidacy for women within political parties which exist today in countries like South Africa, Germany or Sweden which have successfully increased female representation in governance through voluntary quotas by political parties. With women comprising of 42% of its national assembly, South Africa serves as an excellent example of a successful experiment with voluntary party quotas. Sweden, similarly overcame a gender gap of over 34% in its own parliamentary representation by adopting this method. Perhaps the most significant lesson from the global experience with quotas was summarized by a Stockholm IDEA report, which concluded that, “in almost all political systems, no matter what electoral regime, it is the political parties, not the voters that constitute the real gatekeepers to elected offices.”
Party leadership should re-evaluate their internal roles so that a party can be more inclusive of women, creating an environment where the presence of women is not mere tokenism but an opportunity to make the party more representative of contemporary India. The focus, through every method, needs to be on improving female representation in every sector and not simply on increasing the number of women candidates.
Having more women members in a party will force the leadership to take note of candidates with a history of insensitive comments or misconduct against women. Women with senior roles within the party can also mentor the younger generation and help them navigate through the doors and ladders of a political party in India. This rule can be enforced by the Election Commission of India for Indian political parties to be recognized. Hopefully through this route, the road to empowering women to enter politics will be less daunting and far shorter.
About: This article has been authored by Member of Parliament [Lok Sabha] and Member of the Indian national Congress, Gaurav Gogoi, with assistance from Gopika Mahapatra.