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Sunday, September 24, 2023
By Namita Bhandare

The women’s reservation bill, cleared in both houses of Parliament, is indeed historic. But women will still have to wait for some years before they can celebrate. How many? Nobody knows. Read on...


The Big Story

History made? Well, yes, it will be at some future date

Count the women (Source:PTI)

To mark a new beginning on the day of moving into the new Parliament building, the government pulled out an old bill—one designed to make legislative business less of an old boys’ club.

“Historic legislation which will further boost women empowerment,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed 454-2 on Wednesday in the Lok Sabha.

The bill also cleared the Rajya Sabha unanimously once it passes in at least half the state assemblies, will become law.

But quotas for women are not about to become a reality any time soon. Twenty-seven years after it was first introduced, women will still have to wait for their turn to be voted into Parliament. “How many years?” Congress leader Sonia Gandhi asked in the House. “Two? Three? Six? Eight? How many?”

It was a good question, and nobody seemed to know the answer.

So close and yet so far

Still waiting after all these years

“There is no doubt that this is a historic moment,” says Akshi Chawla, curator of WomenLead, that tracks the progress of women in politics globally. “But not having a timeline of when it will come into effect has taken the joy out of it.”

The bill has a clause that stipulates that quotas for women will kick in only after a delimitation exercise. For this to happen, we first need to enumerate our population through a Census that was due in 2021 but has been postponed first due to the pandemic and then for reasons unknown.

There is no word on when the Census will take place.

The Census is important because in a representational democracy, the number of seats in Parliament is determined by our population. So, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most densely populated state, sends 80 representatives to Parliament; Kerala only 20.

The first Lok Sabha had 489 members. We now have 543—and even this is inadequate for a nation of 1.4 billion. The new Parliament house can accommodate 888 Lok Sabha MPs, significantly more than the 552 capacity of the old building. According to a 2019 paper by Milan Vaishnav for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, delimitation could result in a total of 846 Lok Sabha seats, with U.P. going up to 143.

The bottom line: The Women’s Reservation Bill will certainly not come into effect in time for the 2024 elections.

In fact, it might not even come in time for the 2029 elections—given that enumerating 1.4 billion people and then setting up a Delimitation Commission that will redraw the constituencies is not exactly a small or easy task (and given that a north v south fight is nearly inevitable, since the north and its larger population growth is bound to have a greater share).

Can reservation kick in without delimitation—a demand made by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi? It’s hard to understand why not. After all the Census is an ongoing project every 10 years and every decade will throw up the need to increase (or not) the number of people’s representatives.

“If male Parliamentarians can contest on the basis of the old delimitation, why can’t women?” asks Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Political Shakti, an organisation that champions increased women’s representation in Parliament and the state legislatures. “I’m really not convinced that the BJP’s objective is to devolve power to women. This is just an effort to gain political credibility without actually committing to sharing political power.”

Whenever it comes into effect, how will reservation work?

When it comes into effect—2029 or later—33% of seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, including the Delhi state assembly, will be earmarked for women. Within the quota already reserved for candidates from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, 33% will be set aside for women.

There is no quota for Other Backward Castes—a demand made by the Hindi heartland parties in 2010 and a key reason why the bill failed back then.

Sonia Gandhi has pitched for a separate OBC quota and asked for a caste census at the earliest.

AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi, one of the two from his party who voted against the bill, also voiced his concern that the bill would provide reservation only to “savarna women” and exclude both OBC and Muslim women. At the time of the 2019 election, there were only four Muslim women, just 0.9% of all MPs.

Why do we need reservation for women?

This table tells you everything you need to know about the pace of increasing women’s representation in Parliament. It’s worse in the states, with an average of 9%, according to PRS Legislative Research. As of January 2023, India ranked a disgraceful 140 out of 187 countries in terms of women’s representation in Parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Even 75 years after Independence, women remain confined to the peripheries of public life.

In the higher judiciary only 13.57% of high court judges, as of June 2023, are women. Five high courts—Manipur, Meghalaya, Patna, Tripura and Uttarakhand—do not have even one woman judge.

Female labour force participation for 2022, according to the World Bank is just 24%.

But the times are changing. Women have gone to court and won their right to be in the military.

In the panchayats and municipalities, where quotas have been in effect since 1993, they have proved to be extremely effective. While problems of “sarpanch patis” (husbands of the sarpanch who govern by proxy) remain, there is a significant body of research that demonstrates the success of women leaders.

For instance, women invest more in infrastructure that is directly relevant to the needs of rural women (water, fuel, roads) and are more likely to participate in policy-making processes if the leader of their village council is a woman.

Quotas for women at the local governance level created “the possibility of change within the political discourse in the country”, finds a 1999 paper on women’s leadership in panchayati raj institutions by PRIA (Participatory Research in India). Until then the reference point and style of governance was created and led by men and their male needs and aspirations. Now, for the first time women were “legally empowered to occupy seats of power and control that went beyond the confines and decisions taken within the home”.

So what happens now?

The BJP insists the bill is not a political tool designed to appease the rising number of women voters. But the data shows an increasing percentage of women turning out to vote. The 2019 general election saw women voter participation at 67.18%, exceeding male participation at 67.01%.

It’s not just the numbers but how women vote that is remarkable. In 2009, only 43% of women who voted said they were exercising their own choice while 47% said they were influenced by others. A decade later, in 2019, 81% of women who voted had exercised their own choice.

ORF Online/National Election Studies, CSDS Data Unit

The rise of the woman voter has led to a welcome competitive spirit among political parties with ‘nari shakti’ the new rallying cry. It is reflected in an array of poll promises from cash transfers to free bus fares and cooking gas refills.

The BJP’s manifesto for both 2014 and 2019 is committed to passing the Women’s Reservation Bill, which leads to the question: Why now? Why has the government at the end of its term suddenly woken up to promises that have remained dormant? The Uniform Civil Code is another manifesto promise that seems to have found new legs.

Fortunately, we have a precedent that predates the law.

The 2019 general election saw two prominent regional parties, Mamata Banerjee’s TMC and Naveen Patnaik’s BJP earmark 41% and 33% seats respectively for women.

“The real test is what parties will do now in the elections and whether they will improve representation by fielding more women candidates,” says Akshi Chawla. “So far that has not been the case—despite the unanimous vote and the race to claim credit for the initiative, parties have been putting up a dismal show at the time when it matters ie during elections. My analysis shows that on average, only a tenth of candidates put forth by political parties in assembly elections of the past five years have been women.”

Until reservation actually kicks in, perhaps the true test of those hearts beating for gender empowerment will lie in the seats allocated by various parties in the 2024 election.

Women will be watching, and counting.

News you might have missed

Women are awaiting this too…

The Supreme Court on Friday said it would list pleas on the marital rape hearing in mid October. Chief Justice DY Chandrachud told advocate Karuna Nundy that the court would hear the matter after the benches led by him wrap up a bunch of Constitutional cases.

At heart of the matter lies a question on whether rape by a husband can be criminalised. As the law stands, it cannot, provided the wife is over 18 years of age. The issue reached the Supreme Court after a two-judge Delhi high court bench couldn’t reach an agreement. Solicitor general Tushar Mehta told the court that criminalising marital rape would have “social ramifications”.

Breaking records

For the first time ever, the most expensive Indian art work to be sold is a work by a woman, Amrita Sher-Gil. Signed and dated 1937, The Story Teller fetched a staggering Rs 61.8 crore at a SaffronArt auction in New Delhi, breaking the previous record of Rs 51.75 crore paid for S.H. Raza’s Gestation, sold at Pundole’s auction house earlier this month.

Watch this short video on one of the greatest pioneers of Indian modern art here.

In numbers

Women occupy 296 of 583, just over half, positions on the International Olympic Committee, a massive improvement since 2013 when only 20% of commission positions were held by women.


The long(ish) read

Source: Al Jazeera

In Al Jazeera, Saumya Kalia writes on the incredibly complex relationship between women and food with the kitchen as a site where tradition is guarded and where gender roles show there is no space for the woman who “nurtures her family with food yet eats last because she neglects to nurture herself.”

Read the essay here.

News from elsewhere

In the UK, a great deal of soul-searching and hand-wringing have followed an investigation jointly by Channel 4 and Sunday Times into allegations of rape and assault against comedian Russell Brand made by at least four women, one of whom was 16 at the time. The investigation has revealed close to two decades of misogynistic, predatory and violent behaviour. The tragedy is that everybody was in on this “open secret”. “It was not that Mr Brand’s misogyny was unknown. It was that it did not matter,” writes Bagehot in this column in The Economist. Abuse is rife, writes Nadia Khomami in The Guardian. And here’s why BBC failed to investigate Brand in 2019.

In Mogadishu, Reuters goes inside Bilan, the all-women newsroom in Somalia, a country that is the most dangerous for journalists in Africa.


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That’s it for this week. Do you have a tip or information on gender-related developments that you’d like to share? Write to me at:
Produced by Nirmalya Dutta

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