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‘So many voices are left unheard’

Ajita Singh | New Delhi |

With a mission to empower the women and girls of India, guarantee them their rights and increase understanding of social issues from a gender perspective, Centre for Social Research director Dr Ranjana Kumari has been calling for more representation for women in elected bodies.  In an interview with Ajita Singh, the academician and social activist said elected women’s representatives need to highlight the urgency of passing the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament. Excerpts:

Q: The women’s reservation Bill is the longest pending Bill in the history of independent India. Your comment.

A: Yes, the journey has been long. This Bill actually was to be introduced way back in 1996 after the recommendation of the parliamentary committee headed by Geeta Mukherjee. But it was stalled at that time due to a strong protest by male politicians. After 1996, the struggle continued and it was passed by the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) on 9 March 2010. Since then our struggle for passage of the Bill in the Lok Sabha has not ended. It’s unfortunate that so many voices are left unheard and women have been denied the right to equal participation in politics. The serious impediment in tabling the Bill in the Lok Sabha clearly indicates the fear of male politicians in sharing the decision-making power with women.

Q: More women have won in the UP election this time. Your comment.

A: Yes, I have been reading reports that the number of women MLAs in Uttar Pradesh has increased after the polls this year. And that is a very encouraging factor for the alliance that supports the Women’s Reservation Bill. But if you look at the statistics, it’s just a token increase and we still need more representation of women in elected bodies. Also, the elected women representatives need to highlight the Bill in Parliament and reinforce its tabling this time. It’s a fact that women leadership can only be promoted with a united effort. 

Q: What is the present status of the Bill? What are the major hurdles to it?

A:  The Women’s Reservation Bill now demands 33 per cent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and in all State Legislative Assemblies. The major hurdles have been the indecisiveness of the elected parties who have not been able to strongly push for the passage of this Bill. Also, the lack of political will has deferred its passage.

Q: What is the role of women’s organisations with respect to the Bill? How is the National Alliance for WRB making a 
difference in the ongoing struggle to get the Bill passed?

A: The Alliance for 33% is a group of women’s organisations that are coordinating the campaign to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill.  The group organises lobbying, advocacy activities and public mobilisation in support of the Bill.  The Alliance for 33% has been constantly making efforts to mobilise support for the WRB and to push for it to be tabled in the Lok Sabha and converted into a law.

Q: Who do you think will benefit if WRB is passed in Parliament?

A: It is time that India joins the ranks of leading democracies in its promotion of women’s political leadership. The global average for women in Parliament stands at 22.40 per cent, India stands at a pitiable 103rd place out of 140 countries, with a mere 12 per cent representation of elected women in Parliament and an average of 9 per cent  of female representation in State Assemblies. An increased representation of women is required for social indicators like health and well-being that not only boost economic ones but also reflects a country’s value system. Women’s leadership will highlight concerns related to women’s health and well-being which has been chronically ignored.

Q: How will it change the political landscape of the country?

A: Without collective action on the part of women’s groups, the government will not take responsibility to promote women’s leadership seriously. With a sustained united voice, women will put the issue on the agenda.  Also, with 50 per cent representation at the panchayati raj level, women are now more mobilised and their political aspirations have also grown. Now, they also understand and make their own decisions when it comes to electing a representative. 

Q: How will something like WRB benefit the women of India?

A: Currently, women’s engagement in state and national politics in India remains extremely limited. The Constitution of India, via Articles 325 and 326, guarantees political equality to all men and women. However, because of a range of constraints limiting women’s political influence, political equality has not been achieved. With so few women in governance at this level, the environment in these institutions is unsupportive of women’s growth and engagement and serves to perpetuate their exclusion from the higher levels of political process.

Q: Will more women in governance help create a gender sensitive country?

A: While critics claim that this reservation will only benefit privileged women, they are speaking without any input from the rural communities. To attain true equality of representation in governance structures, women from all spheres must be represented in national and state governance structures at a higher rate. Women’s participation will bring in gender equity and well-balanced governance.

Q: Why is the Women’s Reservation Bill facing resistance?

A: Women often lack support networks, mentoring and skills that help them navigate the political environment. The power lobbies are controlled mostly by men or by those women on whom patriarchy is benevolent. Those in power talk in a language that is categorical in its role play of a society that adheres to gender regressive models and those who quantify power by statistics and vote banks rather than catering to human faces who cast votes that bring people into power.