The Act has been passed, now what? - Hindustan Times
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The Act has been passed, now what?

ByHindustan Times
Sep 26, 2023 11:26 AM IST

This article is authored by Anita Anand, communications and development specialist, New Delhi.

In India, September 21 was a red letter day as Parliament passed a momentous legislation allocating 33% of seats ensuring more equal representation for women, in the Lok Sabha or the Lower House, state legislatures and the Capital, Delhi, which is a federally administered territory with an elected assembly.

Indian Parliament (Representative Photo)
Indian Parliament (Representative Photo)

This ended a 27-year deadlock and struggle over a bill due to lack of consensus among political parties. The Lok Sabha approved the legislation with a 454-2 vote and the Rajya Sabha or the Upper House passed the bill unanimously, 214-0, the next day. The bill now requires approval of the President and at least half of India’s 28 state legislatures before it becomes law. It will also apply to seats already reserved for India's most disadvantaged communities -- Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). In the 545-member Lok Sabha, 131 seats are reserved for the two groups and in state assemblies.

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Critics point out that the new law will not apply to the upcoming 2024 national elections. It will be implemented only after a new census and a delimitation or an adjustment of voting districts after next year’s polls. The census scheduled for 2021 was postponed because of Covid-19 pandemic. No new date has been set yet and the census process takes up to four years.

The call for reservations for women in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures came after the passage of the 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Acts of 1992-93, with reservation for women in local governance -- Panchayats and Nagar Palikas -- which resulted in 1.3 million women coming into local politics and decision-making. This was a monumental feat.

The notion of a 33% reservation for women was mooted by the UN Commission on the Status of Women during the appraisal of the 1985 UN Global Conference on Women. Research and experience suggested that a major reason for the insufficient progress in the advancement of women was the lack of women in decision making positions, across the board. The 33% was a percentage to ensure a ‘critical mass’ in any institution including politics, so women could make a difference. Anything below this percentage meant that the majority would prevail.

India’s diversity makes the task of designing public policy particularly challenging. Past attempts to pass this legislation in Parliament failed because of strong opposition from male lawmakers and the call for a ‘quota within the quota’ for women from backward classes, to avoid the space being dominated by elite well-educated women from upper classes and urban areas.

In the recent decision, there are allocations for women from SCs and STs and the Anglo-Indian community, which acknowledges the intersectionality of gender disparities and the historical injustices women faced because of caste and ethnicity.

Currently, in Parliament 15.1% are women. The international average is 24%. In state legislatures it’s 10% of the seats. According to government statistics post the 2019 elections, of 788 Members of Parliament (MPs), 104 were women.

Gender equal societies are a good thing. Research from the European parliament in 2021 shows that such societies enjoy better health, stronger economic growth and higher security. Women, and therefore men, benefit when women are in decision-making positions. A Norwegian study found a link between the presence of women on municipal councils and the level of childcare on offer. Childcare is most ignored and a major reason why women are reluctant to participate outside the home, leave alone politics.

Worldwide, progress is slow but steady. The UN Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU), the global organisation of national parliaments, tracks women’s participation in parliament for decades, measuring progress and setbacks. Data from the IPU and UN Women, in their publication Women in Politics: 2023 Map, shows that women serve as heads of State and/or government in 31 countries and make up 26.5% of MPs. Globally, less than one in four cabinet ministers is a woman, and women lead important human rights, gender equality, and social protection policy portfolios, while men dominate policy areas like defence and economy. Thus, the traditional path to power – rising up through government and senior cabinet positions – is still a challenge for women to navigate.

Back in India, it might just be a good thing that the Women’s Reservation Bill passed may not be implemented for several years. It would give time and space to develop an ecosystem and strategies to prepare women for maximising the benefits of the Act. The assumption is that if a policy or law is passed it will be implemented naturally. This is not so, as the ecosystem required to implement the changes is not there. When the 1992-93 Acts for reservations for women in local governance were passed, women were not ready to step into the roles. It took a great deal of organising by civil society and women’s organisations to prepare women for their roles and this continues.

In the time available, the main focus must be on deliberately preparing women for entry into politics and initiating ways to change hearts and minds about their abilities to perform, as these two factors are barriers to gender parity in politics.

Why women don’t enter, are kept away or leave politics is not rocket science. What then, is the strategy to address this? How to address gender stereotyping in which society, including women themselves, are seen essentially as homemakers, and carers of families, husbands and children? What kind of education and skill development do women need to enter and stay in politics, become leaders and be well-versed and comfortable in negotiation and diplomacy? How do they become more resilient? Can they network like men and stand together as a sex and gender rather than be divided by their differences and prioritise their party preferences? How will they raise finances for campaigns and get political parties to give them tickets, when they are not a ‘critical mass’ in their parties? How do they deal with the hostile environment within political parties, security threats, violence, criminalisation, corruption and insecurity?

An important aspect of the ecosystem is the need for a ‘critical mass’ of women in their political parties. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has proposed to make it mandatory for recognised political parties to give one-third of tickets to women and for women in decision making bodies in the parties. This needs to be implemented.

There is no time for regret, speculation or criticism on when the Act will be implemented. It’s time to work on developing an ecosystem for a successful implementation of the Act. All parties – central and state governments, civil society, research and training organisations, curriculum developers, media, men and women – must work, together and separately, in their fields to make the ecosystem a reality. Then, and only then, will there be more gender parity in governance.

This article is authored by Anita Anand, communications and development specialist, New Delhi.

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