The government said on Saturday it was determined to pass a landmark bill guaranteeing women one-third of seats in parliament to boost female participation in India, the world's largest democracy.
"Our government is committed to social and economic empowerment of women. We are moving
towards one third-reservation for women in parliament and state legislatures," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told a women's leadership summit.
His statement came ahead of the planned tabling in parliament on Monday -- International Women's Day -- of the Women's Reservation Bill, one of the most contentious measures to be put before Indian lawmakers.
The proposal to reserve 33 per cent of seats, first introduced in parliament more than a decade ago, would dramatically increase women's membership in the decision-making lower house where they occupy just 59 slots out of 545.
Passage of the bill would be "a game changer - something unprecedented in terms of significance for a country like India," Zoya Hassan, a professor of political science at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University said.
"It would be a very major step for women's empowerment," she said.
The legislation needs the approval of two-thirds of legislators to pass.
Sonia Gandhi, president of the left-leaning ruling Congress party and regarded as India's most powerful politician, has thrown her weight behind the bill, saying she attaches the "highest importance" to it.
It will be a "gift to the women of India if it is introduced and passed" on International Women's Day, she told party MPs.
The bill has been blocked for years by opposition from lawmakers who have demanded a portion of the women's quota be set aside for minorities and so-called backward classes -- socially and economically disadvantaged groups.
But the Congress, resoundingly re-elected last May, is seen as able to push through the bill with support from coalition partners and major opposition parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the communists.
Politics in India has traditionally been a male bastion, but women now hold prominent positions, including President Pratibha Patil and Sonia Gandhi. India has had one female prime minister, Indira Gandhi.
Panchayats already reserve a portion of their seats for women and experts say the move has given women greater status in their communities.
But much still needs to be done for women in India which has one of the world's most skewed sex ratios in favour of boys, say the quota bill's advocates.
The World Economic Forum in its 2009 report on global gender disparities ranked the country 114th out of a list of 134 countries with the country posting lowly scores on female life-expectancy, health and education.
"Don't fail the women of India," The Hindu newspaper told legislators in an editorial, saying greater female representation would "force a shift of focus" toward rooting out entrenched discrimination against women.
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