The women’s reservation Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2010 but has not yet been passed in the Lok Sabha. No other legislation in our democratic history has been discussed for so many years (15 years) without being passed or rejected.
Such a delay has happened even though major parties support the Bill and there are 1.2-1.5 million women who hold elected office at the local level and discharge their duties successfully. India has more elected women representatives than in any other country in the world.
Despite the involvement of women at local level, some things have remained unchanged: the male-female ratio is at an all-time low of 914 females to 1,000 males, and is dropping; atrocities and violence against women are increasing; and in spite of the uproar after the December 16 gang rape, violence against women has not abated. Moreover, feminisation of poverty continues as also the unequal access of women to property, wealth and resources. The political sphere also discriminates against women.
Come elections, it will be the young who will decide the future of this country and so they should keep in mind the best interests of what a TV channel calls the ‘Power of 49’ (percentage of women voters in India) and vote only for those candidates who believe in the women’s agenda.
Here’s the women’s agenda which should find a place in the manifestos: parties must pledge to pass the women’s reservation Bill within a stipulated time; ensure separate State-funding for women candidates to enable them to participate on a par with men; ensure that every party has women at all levels, with a meaningful presence in their highest decision-making bodies and ensure that every party sets up its internal committee to hear complaints of sexual harassment in accordance with the workplace legislation.
They must also promise to ensure that all organisations formulate and implement the rules of the Act relating to prevention, prohibition and redress of sexual harassment of women at the workplace and address the problems of women farmers and formulate a special comprehensive package that emphasises their special needs, particularly training in new technologies.
The parties must also ensure the implementation of the domestic workers Act, equal remuneration and maternity benefit legislation and fix accountability for the non-implementation of these pieces of legislation and ensure punishment for erring officials. In addition, the parties must promise to review property laws and ensure implementation of enacted laws that entitle women an equal share in property. Whoever comes to power should provide skills training for women in all sectors, urban and rural.
Here are a few more issues that should be on the economic agenda of parties: formulate schemes to ensure economic self-reliance of women and harness the incredible success and energy of self-help groups. The parties must also promise to improve the working condition of women in workplaces.
As far as health issues of women are concerned, all indicators of a gender-just society (child sex ratio, maternal and infant mortality, quality of survival) should be studied and incorporated in the planning mechanism. To this end, gender-segregated data should be collected for all these sectors.
Apart from the finance ministry, all other ministries should be required to generate gender-specific data, particularly health, education and agriculture, and gender components that ensure development of women must be made mandatory; water and sanitation requirements of women should be a special focus of an inter-ministerial group in the new government. Anganwadi workers should be given permanent status with recognition.
As far as prevention of violence and atrocities against women go, the fund that was started after the December 16 gang rape should be given a clear and specific structure so that it is put to use immediately. Police reforms with regard to safety of women and sensitisation of police personnel should be an immediate priority. The new government should induct sufficient women into the police force in proportion to the population of women. The recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee should be implemented to the fullest extent possible and special laws should be brought in to punish those who commit atrocities against women in the name of witchcraft, honour killing, and other patriarchal, discriminatory laws.
The new government should take special care to protect women at the time of riots, natural disasters and other emergency situations as this is a vulnerable time for women and all laws and legal structures for the protection of women in the legal process, particularly police stations and jails, should be constantly monitored and implemented.
The women’s agenda is long and political parties must not tuck away their commitments in one desultory paragraph in the manifesto, but guarantee women the freedom from discrimination promised to them by the Constitution and ensure that these promises are fulfilled later.
Jayanthi Natarajan is a member of the Rajya Sabha and a political activist
The views expressed by the author are personal