It is not often that the level of development of a country indicates the empowerment of its women. Rwanda, by no means developed regardless of the developmental criteria one uses, comes on top of the list of the proportion of women MPs in Parliament. India ranks a poor 141st, according to the data of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. And this is also being reflected in the representation of women in the government. In the second reshuffle done by the NDA government on July 5, of the 19 new ministers sworn in, just two are women. This takes the number of women ministers in the government (Cabinet ministers and ministers of state taken together) to nine among 78, just about equalling the proportion of women MPs in Parliament, which is 11.4%. The situation was not much different in the UPA 2, in which 10 women figured in a ministry of 78. In this respect India is on a par with China, while Indonesia, with a score of nearly 25%, has done much better. Compare this with the US’ Obama Administration, in which six of the 22 members, including the president and the vice-president, are women.
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There are two aspects to the problem here. Elite politics in Asian countries has been to a great extent family-based. Bit as one goes downward, societies turn more illiberal and male-dominated. Thus politics at the grassroots does not provide a fertile soil for a woman to contest elections and become leaders in order to stake claim for high offices. Though now we have legislation providing for 33% reservation for women in local bodies, elected women are often found to do the bidding of the so-called male superiors in their families. Even in the middle classes the feeling is strong that politics is chiefly a male domain. When a woman wishes to join politics, political glad-handing has to come from a man. This has been the story of the four powerful women chief ministers in India.
The Indian State has great welfare content in policy and execution. Still its baggage of the past is such that women’s empowerment has not been as much as had been desired. To ameliorate things, both the State and civil society have a role. While civil activists can play their part in consciousness generation and educate women about their rights, the State must use its iron hand to see to it that women are represented in local organisations on their strength. Political parties, on their part, should give more space for women in contesting elections until full-fledged legislation comes in.