The four pillars of a developed India Modi was referring to at the ‘Viksit Bharat Viksit Gujarat’ programme are Women, Farmers, and the Poor.
The Indian Parliament has finally enacted a law providing for one third gender quota in Parliament and State Assemblies after a series of unsuccessful initiatives for nearly three decades. UN Women India, a global champion for the empowerment of women and girls, applauded the Reservation Act, and hopes it will “leapfrog India into one of 64 countries” who have reserved seats for women. Conceptually, quotas represent a shift from one concept of equality of opportunity to the concept of equality with emphasis on results, ‘a sort of fast track method’, ‘a qualitative jump into a policy of exact goals and means.’ More than one hundred countries across the world including Pakistan and sub-Saharan African countries have introduced reservation. According to a UN Women report, it has been possible to have 40 per cent women in legislatures in 23 countries through the introduction of a quota system. In countries such as France, South Korea, and Nepal, a quota as high as 50 per cent has been reserved for women. Under-representation of women in democratic bodies like Parliament around the globe has been an issue of open debate and discussion ever since the Women Development Decade (1975-85) initiated at the instance of United Nations, brought to light that the scales of world equality are out of balance ~ men ride high on power while women are endowed with responsibilities. The Human Development Report 1995 made a strong plea for engendering development by correcting gender equality, without which development will be endangered Scholars like Anne Phillips have argued that ‘women bring different types of skill in politics and provide role models for future generations’. Besides, their inclusion in politics facilitates representation of the specific interest of women in state policy, and revitalises democracy by bridging the gap between representation and participation. It can also help in reducing gender inequality, and thus promote one of the key sustainable development goals and bring about an improvement on women’s health, well-being and overall quality of life. In India the protagonists of a quota in Parliament believe that it will add a new dimension to the debates and discussions and it will bring a more ‘civil pattern’ of interactions Besides, larger numbers of women will mobilize and help redirect the political agenda towards greater social good and reduction of corruption. These are proved by empirical studies conducted in panchayats. Historically speaking, Sarojini Naidu and Margaret Cousins led a group of women to demand before the British Parliament equal rights of representation for the fair sex in the Indian Provincial Legislatures long ago. The Second Round Table Conference (1931) took cognizance of it but ended without positive results because of lack of consensus. Our Constitution seeks to guarantee equality in different Articles including provision for positive discrimination (Article 15.3). In the Constituent Assembly women leaders did not demand quota because political equality and complete universal suffrage was now offered to all citizens. Women activists perceived it ‘as a retrograde step’. Despite the absence of the perception of women as actors in development in almost all the Plan documents, it was the National Perspective Plan for Women which argued for introducing a 30 per cent quota for women at all levels of elective bodies. In 1992, twin constitutional amendments accepted one third gender quota in all local bodies. Now there are nearly 46 per cent women in panchayat bodies. More significantly, during the last few years, 20 states have amended their legislations to make room for 50 per cent reservation of seats for women in rural local bodies. The studies have brought quite a few dominant challenges which elected women leaders in panchayats are experiencing. They can be located at three levels, namely individual and family, society and polity and law and institutions. At the individual level lack of experience in participation in political institutions has emerged as an important factor. At the social and political level there is a strong tradition of patriarchy which gives birth to a new class of male village leaders popularly known as sarpanch pati, sarpanch sasur, sarpanch bhai and sarpanch jeth. Political Weekly, Vol 32 (26): WS13-20, April 26-May 2, 19 conducted on women members of 84 GPs in Kerala found that apart from education and land holdings, other variables like age, occupation, and income are crucial for women to enter into politics. Arora and Prabhakar (1997) in their study focused on why some females are more interested in politics and found that women representatives who were highly educated and were from upper caste or dominant castes were more interested in politics. They also pointed out that women representatives who often met and discussed with their friends had significant political interest. Further, Nilekani (2010) found domestic violence against women, wage disparities, sexual harassment and abuse, discrimination in the supplement of nutrition, and low female literacy rates to be widely prevalent in India. Significantly, women have been able to bring about some change in the popular social perception about them ~ that they are incapable of running the government ~ by dint of their remarkable performance. Studies have exploded the popular perception that women are not interested in politics. The analysis of election data about women elected representatives reveals that women have expanded their representation to unreserved seats. The important question that needs to be probed further is the relationship between the ‘politics of presence’ of women and the ways in which these are translated into meaningful processes in the decentralization of democracy and engendering of development and politics. Major obstacles to women’s participation in the public domain in South Asia, as American sociologist Gail Omvedt has observed, can be traced to patrilineal and patrilocal kinship structures where women get ‘socialised to be mothers, wives and workers under others’ authority’. The competitive nature of politics where it becomes a profitable source of income and power that men tend to control appears to be another hindrance. Ideally, what we need are more efforts to collectively mobilise not only women, but also men in support of greater equality. Scandinavia presents the most hopeful case. If we go back 100 years there, we observe a radical activism jump-started by women but with great support from men as well. That was the secret of their success. If properly implemented the gender quotas stand out prominently as an effective strategy of positive discrimination even in the so-called Least Developed Countries in Sub Saharan Africa, such as, Rwanda, Burundi, and Mozambique. According to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index 2023, women hold 61.3 per cent of Rwanda’s Parliament, a first in the world for women’s representation in the national parliament. The empirical studies on local bodies in India bring out that hard rock patriarchy is the most dominant challenge. True, it cannot be broken overnight but the fact remains as evident from studies on the local bodies that women have started collecting rock-breaking chemicals although the process is still very slow because of patriarchal resistance. The decade of the 1990s marked political churning which led to some mainstreaming of the marginalised sections including women as reflected in the debates on the women’s reservation bills. Earlier undifferentiated reservation was opposed on the ground that reservation would continue the perpetuation of upper caste domination which is the breeding ground of the leaders; while it has some substance, the fact remains that regular democratic seed-drilling at the local level weakens the caste system, and in course of time, women from lower castes will emerge as leaders. The provision for gender quota gives women a piece of land which belongs to them as a group. The construction of houses is now the most challenging job. Rabindranath Tagore raised this issue in Strir Patra and Jogajog. ‘Kumudini and Mrinal needed a house of their own where they will be enjoying some freedom’. Around the same time, in 1929, Virginia Woolf hinted at the same thing in her A Room of One’s Own. Will the ‘patriarchal’ state come forward to help women construct their houses? It is very difficult for the state any longer to ignore the demand of women because democracy is a game of numbers. In the villages and towns where more than one-third women live, the process of challenging patriarchy has already begun. Women, who are more enlightened today, matter.
The writers are, respectively, Vice Chancellor of St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata, and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Xavier Law School, St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata