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For all the talk of women empowerment, they are politically marginalised

It is no one’s contention that electoral rhetoric should be focused only on women but half the population deserves much more attention than it gets now

columns Updated: Sep 15, 2018 16:26 IST
women's reservation
How heartening it would be if political parties gearing up for elections were to discuss seriously how to push up the number of women candidates. If the last election was about development, this one could be about development plus women’s rights.(Burhaan Kinu/HT)

In case you were waiting with bated breath last weekend for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national executive to make some substantial statements on how the party plans to improve women’s rights as it goes into election mode, you must have been disappointed. However, the Modi government could have spoken of the many schemes it has instituted which have benefitted women though not as much as they should have. The Ujjwala Yojana, which provides cooking gas connections to poor households, has meant much less manual work for many women and less danger of contracting respiratory diseases. The Swachh Bharat programmes have improved hygiene and safety for women. This is to mention just a few.

But it would have been really heartening for the half the population had the party and others in the fray felt that women’s issues were important enough to feature as an important aspect of their election blueprints. For one, all parties really need to sit down with their elected representatives and tell them that there has to be a culture of respect when speaking of women. A BJP MLA from Ghatkopar recently grandly offered to kidnap girls who refused offers of marriage from young men. The MLA felt it was his duty to fulfil the wishes of men who were rejected suitors and use force to make women comply. Then we had an independent MLA from Kerala who dismissed a nun rape victim as a whore. This disrespect cuts across party lines, from trivialising rape to attacking women for dressing in a particular way, many politicians have sought to diminish women and their rights.

The message should come from the party leaders that any legislator found disparaging women will face the consequences within the party and within the law. These remarks cannot be dismissed as just loose talk. They are taken as licence to misbehave by the lumpen elements in all parties.

How heartening it would be if political parties gearing up for elections were to discuss seriously how to push up the number of women candidates. Data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks India 147 out of 188 countries when it comes to the representation of women in parliament. Most parties have now stopped even paying lip service to the women’s reservation bill except that they agree in principle that such a move should be undertaken.

One issue that should be taken up, and the BJP being the ruling party should lead the way, is the frightening rise in violence against women. Rapes and others forms of assault are now a daily occurrence, so much so that even violent rapes of children no longer make headlines or merit much attention from shrieking television anchors. This is one issue where schemes like Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao could have been used to far greater effect.

There is still time before real election fever kicks in. The BJP should lead the debate on how much the lack of inclusion of women in the labour force has hurt the economy. India’s female labour force participation is among the lowest in South Asia, according to the latest Economic Survey data. If Indian women had equal employment and work opportunities, McKinsey Global Institute estimates that it would add $ 770 billion to the economy.

If the last election was about development, this one could be about development plus women’s rights. It is amazing that all parties feel the need to institute women-centric schemes but feel no need to either showcase them or build on them. When elections come around, the discourse usually revolves around security or class-caste politics. The feeling is that women’s rights just don’t get you votes and that women are, by and large, not winnable candidates.

It is no one’s contention that electoral rhetoric should be focused only on women but half the population deserves much more attention than it gets now. As mentioned before in these columns, there is no women’s vote like, say, a Yadav vote or a Bhoomihar vote. Women are fragmented and marginalised in all sections of society, so they have less political leverage. Perhaps civil society and women’s groups, who are efficient influencers as seen in the Article 377 struggle, should put their minds to at least pushing for more women to enter politics. It may not bring about a revolution, but certainly women’s rights would get a boost. And it might just make elections that much more interesting and varied.

lalita.panicker@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Sep 15, 2018 16:25 IST