Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi said the all-party meeting, chaired by Defence Minister and Lok Sabha Deputy Leader Rajnath Singh, was attended by 30 leaders from 23 parties. The session will run for 19 days and have 15 sittings.
After a 27-year wait, on 20 September 2023, the Women’s Reservation Bill was finally passed unreservedly by all members of Parliament. It was an unprecedented moment when positive discourse rather than acrimonious dissent greeted the acceptance of the Bill. Till 2023, the see-saw movement of the bill was a matter of great disappointment to its supporters. Perhaps, in recent times the high ratio of women voters has resulted in an attitudinal shift towards Indian women.
Reserving domestic cooking gas cylinders for Indian women whose destiny outlined by tradition has been about unpaid caregiving and compulsory unpaid cooking and domestic work, seems to have been reassessed at last.
So the promise is that at least 33 per cent women and 67 per cent men can become the voice of 21st century India in the Indian Parliament. Ideally it should have been a 50-50 distribution. But something is better than nothing, and the struggle for gender equality is not over.
The struggle to achieve gender equality has been an arduous ongoing process as the 1974 report tabled in Parliament titled Towards Equality outlined. The CSWI (Committee on the Status of Women in India) report Towards Equality found demographic trends of declining sex ratio, disparities in the life expectancy and death rates between men and women; and underscored the difficulties involved in women’s access to literacy, education and livelihood. It was of the view that the Indian State had failed in its constitutional responsibility of gender equality.
Thereafter, in 2015, in the Executive Summary issued by the Ministry of Women and Child Development it was stated that in the 21st century the socio-cultural landscape for women is a complex mixture of the new and the old.
Numerous modern institutions are rooted in the patriarchal structures, traditions and conservatism. The summary further asserted that industrialisation, globalisation, urbanisation and modernisation have led to some irreversible changes for women ~ some positive and some problematic.
On one hand a liberalised economy has offered better education, jobs, decision-making powers and opportunities for women.
On the other, women have been targets of a strong backlash with increased violence in and outside the home, acute wage differentials and discrimination and continuing commodification in society. The summary further pointed out that migration, skewed sex ratio and environmental degradation have added to women’s vulnerability.
Also, the summary stated unequivocally that India is a male dominated society in which the economic, political, religious, social and cultural institutions are largely controlled by men. This control over women’s livelihood choices and sexuality has existed and evolved over centuries through various discriminatory social practices and institutions. A combination of family, caste, community, and religion reinforce and legitimise these patriarchal values.
Stereotyping of women and their roles continues in public and institutions.
Moreover, the summary asserted that the media, both state and private, with its huge potential to influence and change mindsets unfortunately has not been harnessed for this. However in recent years media seems to be more gender sensitized and ripples of changes are being perceived though these are very slow and inadequate.
Also, the summary reiterates the cliched perception that on one hand women are worshipped as goddesses, while on the other burnt for dowry. Boys are more desirable and seen as a support for parents in their old age and therefore necessary to continue the family lineage. Girls are considered an unwanted burden yet used to support their brothers and men and suffer atrocities such as abuse, violence, rape and early marriages in silence.
Furthermore, in this intensive and exhaustive summary there are references to discriminatory practices such as child marriages, dowry, honour killing, witch hunting and gender biased sex selection which indicate profound vulnerability of and inequality towards girls and women in Indian society.
Of course, the government has recognised these paradoxes and attempted to address these in policies, legislation and programmes. Development programmes introduced to bring gender equality have produced mixed results.
Legislative changes have faced resistance in their implementation due to social, cultural and religious mores. It is expected that as soon as the Women’s Reservation Bill is implemented a significant number of educated women legislators will trigger a paradigm shift in terms of social conditioning, coercive and involuntary. Optics are crucial in the digital era.
Interestingly, Ms Susan Ferguson, the Country Representative of the United Nations Women India centre, has hailed the acceptance of the Bill by the Indian Parliament as a bold and transformative step, and stated, “We hope political parties across the board will come together to ensure timely implementation of the Bill given that gender quotas in policies and politics is crucial to advancing gender equality and women’s rights.
The Women’s Reservation Bill strengthens India’s commitment to women-led development and sets a global example.” She emphasized, “This is a moment of great elation for gender advocates and organisations that work for gender equality, women’s economic empowerment and their increased role in leadership positions.”
Incidentally, all global and local governments and informed members of the civil society both in the Global North and Global South are aware of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals outlined in detail by the United Nations for the period 2015 to 2030. Goal 5 concerns and calls for universal gender equality. SDG 5 aims to grant women and girls equal rights and opportunities to live free of violence and discrimination, including in the workplace.
SDG 5 has nine targets and 14 indicators. Six of the targets are outcome targets:
• ending all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.
• ending violence and exploitation of women and girls
• eliminating harmful practices such as child early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation
• increasing value of unpaid care and promoting shared domestic responsibilities
• ensuring full participation of women in leadership and decision-making
• ensuring access to universal reproductive rights and health.
The three means of implementation targets are:
• fostering equal rights to economic resources, property ownership, and financial services for women
• promoting empowerment of women through technology
• adopting and strengthening policies for gender equality, and supporting legislation to enforce it.
Unfortunately, amidst all the euphoria however comes the chilling realization that the implementation of the Bill would not be immediate but would require several years if not more. In culinary terms it is like heaping a pile of plates on a rising pudding or cake.
Of course politicising gender is a constant yet cannot immediate implementation of the Bill prove to the world that India has creditably addressed SDG 5 before 2030 as an example to both the Global North and the Global South?
Let us not align the acceptance without implementation of the Women’s Reservation Bill to Albert Camus’s arguments about formless chaos, the absurd and the myth of Sisyphus. Who can forget the doomed Sisyphus, who rolls the boulder to the top of the hill only to watch it roll to the bottom.
After years of patience and perseverance a single gendered game-changing goal has been reached, some even equating this with a leap of faith. Let us reverse the myth of Sisyphus. Let us prove Zeus wrong. Let the long awaited, now accepted, Women’s Reservation Bill be implemented in 2023.
The writer is former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Calcutta University.