Bill that reserves women's political history

Published on Apr 19, 2004 01:11 PM IST

The Women's Reservation Bill had been in preparation for at least a decade and a half, yet there is no consensus on the floor of the parliament to even debate it.

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History of women's movement in India

The history of the women's movement goes back a long while. Traditionally, women in India have adhered strictly to the country's complex social and cultural constraints. Rigid patriarchal structures have tied women down for centuries. Cases of bride burning and sati are all too familiar, despite laws making it illegal. In consequence numerous female movements evolved. The Women's Indian Association in 1917, the National Council of Women in 1925 and the All India Women's Conference in 1927 have worked hard to highlight the female cause in social and political spheres, and have paved the way for the emergence of a Women's Reservation Bill.

Proposal of the Women's Reservation Bill

The Women's Reservation Bill (WRB) had been in preparation for at least a decade and a half although it was thoroughly debated only on the September 12th 1996. 

Here the WRB was introduced into the Lok Sabha where it was proposed that no less than one third of the total number of seats in Parliament and State Assemblies be reserved for women.

This symbolised the start of a major feminist initiative. It was thought that balance between the sexes in Parliament might result in an improvement of women causes as a whole. As the proposal states, "It is an essential precondition to reform, one that will lead to the feminisation of Parliament and make a difference in the quality of decision making."

The Bill intends to cover issues that have affected females for decades. These include:

* The mandatory registration of all marriages to prevent marital discord
* Eradication of child marriages
* Abolition of the dowry system
* Free legal aid and police stations for women
* Police stations for women
* Eradication of crimes against women

But it has proved difficult to push the proposal through. First it was kept in storage for two years to achieve consensus, where several male members of Parliament claimed females should remain in the home. 

In July 1998 it appeared the Bill would be passed when it was brought before the house for a third time. But on the strength of two party leaders, Laloo Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJD) and Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP), the introduction was stalled.

The last deferral of the Bill was in May 2003. Since then there have been pledges from both the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpai and the Congress Party to push the bill through, although both have been unsuccessful. 

As a result, men hold 93% of seats in Parliament and statistics show that the percentage of women MPs has never exceeded 8.1%.

Counter attack by proponents:

According to Dr Ranjana Kumari, Director of the Center for Social Research (CSR) and one of the main proponents of the Bill, WRB is a way forward for all females in India but it is difficult to achieve because of the patriarchal structure of South Asian culture and the attitudes of those opposing the it: "Laloo Prasad Yadav thinks women should stay in the home but the minute he was kicked out of his own party it was his wife who took over from him. Is he not a hypocrite?" 
Many females who have worked hard at promoting the Bill say they have great faith in their abilities to carry India forward. Says Kumari, "females can do a lot for this country given a chance and that is what we are hoping to attain. We want an opportunity to get somewhere based on our original ideas and not through those of men."

Key dates in the WRB

September 12th 1996:  Women's Reservation Bill introduced in the Lok Sabha.  Proposal seeks to reserve no less than one-third of the total number of seats in Parliament and State assemblies. Bill not considered adequate and is rejected.

August 11th 1997: WRB is put to Prime Minister I.K Gujral who agrees to review the proposal although it is pushed down the priority list to the winter season.    This serves as a minor victory for women organizations but also signals another wait.

July 13th 1998: WRB is presented to Houses of Parliament amidst rumors the Bill will be passed. But pandemonium breaks out with leaders of the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJD) and Samajwadi party (SP) snatching the Bill from the hands of the speaker and tearing it apart claiming that females should remain in the home.

May 6th 2003: WRB is again presented to Houses of Parliament but deferred because of strong opposition from the RJD and SP.

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