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The gender agenda before Parliament

The first thing the Modi government should in the area of gender is to tackle the jobs crisis which has affected women across the board. There is a crisis of jobs all around in India and this is more acute in the case of women who often lack the education and skills to compete

columns Updated: May 25, 2019 19:49 IST
Lalita Panicker
Lalita Panicker
Hindustan Times
women in parliament,Lok Sabha elections,BJP
Among the women who came up trumps are the BJP’s Smriti Irani who did the seemingly impossible and wrested the Gandhi family seat from the party president, Rahul Gandhi(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

Just 724 women contesting in an election in which 8,049 candidates were in the fray says it all. Women are coming out in droves to vote, outnumbering men in many states, but when it comes to getting a slice of the electoral pie, they are on the margins. The Congress, though beaten fair and square, put up the maximum number of women at 54, followed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with 53. Though she is not known to espouse women’s causes, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party fielded 24 women, the Trinamool Congress 23, the CPI (M) 10, the CPI four and the Nationalist Congress Party a dismal one. As many as 222 women contested independently.

It is ironical that despite the massive women voter turnout, only 78 won. It is cold comfort that this is marginally better than the 61 women who won in 2014 and the 59 who made it to the 2009 Lok Sabha. Among the women who came up trumps are the BJP’s Smriti Irani who did the seemingly impossible and wrested the Gandhi family seat from the party president, Rahul Gandhi.

But the fact remains that despite women winning against all odds, gender issues are rarely, if ever, discussed by political parties, either during campaigns or while in office. Whenever parties target women voters, it is always with the same condescending distribution of sarees, sewing machines, food processors and promises of money. It is never about substantial issues like economic empowerment in the form of rural start ups, or employment generation. As the new government begins its onerous task of getting down to business, it will have to grapple with many big ticket items from internal security to the economy. The mandate that Modi has got will make it easier for him to push his ministers to take up women’s issues with much greater focus than in his first term.

For the gender agenda to get the prominence it deserves, proactive and dynamic ministers must be chosen for the human resource development and women and child portfolios. Traditionally, many political heavyweights have quailed at the prospect of being given these ministries as they are seen as lightweight ones. I remember a former woman minister who was so angry when she was given charge of women and child development that she refused for a while to go to office. When she finally did, it was to come out with family planning slogans like “One isfun, two will do” and so on.

The first thing the Modi government should in the area of gender is to tackle the jobs crisis which has affected women across the board. There is a crisis of jobs all around in India and this is more acute in the case of women who often lack the education and skills to compete. We have been stuck in this crippling loop for too long. But perhaps, the new ministers need to look at this from a different perspective. For example, in rural areas where retention in schools is a problem, there should be efforts to visit these areas and discuss the kind of jobs that women can get if they have the right educational qualifications. A United Nations study in which recruiters for the business processing industry went to villages outside Delhi to provide information to women and advertise jobs for those with a secondary school education is informative. There was an improvement in school enrolment, particularly in courses that would be beneficial to secure the jobs on offer, among them English and computer literacy. The spin-offs were huge and heartening. Girl children got better nutrition, there were delays in marriage age and child bearing and economic independence for the girls who benefited.

Many parents who stop their girls from going to school or who pull them out early are not aware of the returns they could get from educating them. We need to make available information on what jobs educated women from rural areas can get, how their public mobility can be made safer and also utilise credible role models for young women.

The next HRD minister should be out there in rural areas at least once a month to motivate women to get educated, for families to invest in educating the girl child and to encourage women to get jobs, if possible locally. Education is a state subject but when the push comes from the Centre, the states will find it difficult not to match the initiative.

lalita.panicker@hindustantimes.com

First Published: May 25, 2019 19:27 IST