I was elected mayor twice in Norway through a system that opened doors for women in politics. Norwegian political parties routinely reserve top positions on electoral rolls for women. Women in Norway today occupy 39.6% of the seats in Parliament and 40% in the local councils.
A little more than a century ago, however, women did not have the right to vote. So how did things change? Norwegian women can thank a vibrant women's liberation movement that pressed for many important policy changes and helped change mindsets. Political reforms gave women the right to vote and stand for public office, among many other rights.
Formal rights did not automatically lead to political power. According to a study by researchers at the Uni Rokkan Centre in Norway, it took a long time for women to gain political influence. It was not until the “extension of social rights such as social security and insurance that women were able to fulfill their political rights as it removed many of the practical hurdles for women. Arrangements for care and nursing meant that women grew more independent and had the time to take part in activities outside their homes”.
So how can women leaders in India have equal influence over decision-making? Women in India got the right to vote at the same time as men — that was not the case in Norway. In 1993, the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments provided for 33% reservation of seats for women in panchayats. As a result, India now has the largest absolute number of women in grassroots politics, with over 1.2 million elected women representatives. They occupy more than 42% of seats in local bodies exceeding the one-third quota. There is clearly a desire to participate — 14 states have now passed legislation reserving at least 50% seats for women.
Like Norway, India has a vibrant women's movement that has effectively pushed legislation and policy to promote human rights. As a result, participation by civil society in public policy is now a norm in India, notably with the establishment of the National Advisory Council (NAC).
There are many areas, however, where greater political reform, stronger social strategies and better implementation could benefit India. Firstly, the Women's Reservation Bill, guaranteeing one third of seats in the national legislature to women is yet to be passed. The experience from the panchayats shows that reservation, though not perfect, can clearly make a difference.
Politics is an important arena where decisions are made about laws, policies and the allocation of resources. In Norway, the increase of women in politics has resulted in greater services for women. For example, the government of Norway invests in public kindergarten facilities so every child can avail of these services if desired by the parents. This was the result of a legislation that was strongly pushed by women politicians.
Secondly, India needs to provide elected women representatives with greater support in carrying out their roles. Research reveals that less than 30% of elected women have received training for their positions. Social security can make women more independent and assertive in the political sphere. Equal educational, employment and reproductive rights help women to become stronger decision-makers.
A look at the present situation, however, shows that India has the potential to do much more. According to the World Bank, the Indian economy nearly doubled from $834 billion in 2005 to $1.72 trillion in 2010. At the same time, inequality is increasing and 96% of consumption inequality would be on account of gender.
There are also limited public resources for gender. An analysis of the Union Budget 2010-11 by the UN Women and Centre for Budgets and Governance Accountability reveals that of the total allocations meant for women, only 3.5% is targeted specifically at women from the marginalised sections of the population such as minorities, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the disabled.
Clearly, the time has come for increased allocations for laws and schemes related to women. Ensuring equal pay for equal work, guaranteeing medical insurance, work benefits such as maternity leave and pension would also go a long way towards strengthening the status of women in India.
By making women a non-negotiable part of development strategies, India can ensure that they become key decision-makers. Fast paced industrial growth has been India's catalyst. Now it should be social progress. Affirmative action for women can open up the right opportunities for them.
Anne F Stenhammer is the programme director of UN Women in South Asia. The views expressed by the author are personal.