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Is women’s quota working?

mumbai Updated: Nov 27, 2011 01:54 IST
Bhavya Dore

Contrary to popular belief, reserving seats for women in elected bodies may not be the best way to ensure women’s progress, an analysis of data from several general elections suggests. The analysis finds no real link between women’s representation in parliament and empowerment of women.

The analysis is part of a research paper by Kannamma Raman, an associate professor at the Mumbai University's department of civics and politics. The research was conducted last year following the passing of the women’s reservation bill in the Rajya Sabha and was published as a book in September.

The study finds that Maharashtra, considered to be among the more progressive states, has done worse in terms of nominating and electing women candidates to the Lok Sabha in the past five elections, than relatively under-developed states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In the past five elections, Maharashtra sent only 16 women to the Lok Sabha, compared to 46 who were elected from Uttar Pradesh, 20 from Madhya Pradesh and 20 from Bihar, though the rate of women’s literacy is lower and maternal mortality rates higher in these states. The findings assume importance in the run up to the upcoming civic elections in February, which for the first time, will have one third of all seats reserved for women candidates.

The study also looked at performance of women Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House. It measured how often they raised questions on women’s issues, such as domestic violence, and participated in discussions on women’s issues. (See box) The verdict, on both counts, is abysmal, though the representation of women in parliament overall has increased to 11% in 2009, compared to 4.4% in the first Lok Sabha elections in 1952. “Women are just not asking these questions,” said Raman. “Sometimes, male MPs are far more sensitive in such matters.”

Further, despite talk of women’s empowerment, national parties such as the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) do not appear to have done much better at fielding women compared to their smaller or regional counterparts. For instance, in the 2004 and 2009 elections, the Communist Party of India-Marxist gave 11.59% and 7.32% of their tickets respectively to women, while the BJP gave 8.24% and 9.7% and the Congress 10.79% and 9.09% of their tickets to women.

“Instead of reserving seats for women, parties should give 50% of their tickets to women candidates,” said Nitai Mehta, managing trustee of Praja Foundation, a non-profit group working towards better governance. “That will change the dynamics because then parties would have to look for good, strong women leaders. Otherwise you often have the mother, sister or wife standing for election.”

The paper says that quotas should, at best, be a temporary method to fast-track more women into the parliament and legislative assemblies. Even this measure should be taken only after greater debate, not just in parliament, but at various other forums. The paper recommends a comprehensive overhaul of the system at the structural and procedural levels to enable women to enter the parliament without any crutches.