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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 6 New Delhi January 27, 2018 - Republic Day Special

Women’s Political Participation: A Catalyst for Gender Equality in India

Saturday 27 January 2018

WOMEN’S WORLD

by Archna Katoch

Women’s empowerment is indispensable to achieve the fifth of the seventeen sustainable development goals (SDGs) of the United Nations to ‘achieve gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls’, and ultimately an all-inclusive, democratic and peaceful world. According to UN Women, to make the SDGs a reality for women by 2030, it is vital to put efforts on five major areas: increasing women’s leadership and participation; ending violence against women; engaging women in all aspects of peace and security processes; enhancing women’s economic empowerment; and making gender equality central to national development planning and budgeting.

Equal political participation for women at par with men is a fundamental condition for a truly accountable and vibrant democracy. However, recent results in the Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat Assembly elections show that gender disparity leading to deprivation of power among women continue to be a political reality in India. The Constitution of India, which regards the ‘right to equality’ above other Fundamental Rights has been dishonoured by the dismal political representation of India’s largest minority—women. Similarly, in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017, the country is ranked low at the 108th position out of 144 in terms of overall representation across economy, education, health and politics.

In fact, the term ‘political participation’ is not only interrelated to ‘right to vote’, but simul-taneously relates to participation in the decision-making process, political activism, political consciousness, etc. Women in India, starting from the home to the top layer of policy-making, are continuously barred from decision-making at every step of the ladder. Women in India extensively took part in the Indian independence movement in the early twentieth century but after independence, historically women’s political participation has remained minuscule.

Women representation in Parliament shows us the mirror on how far India lags behind in providing its females the level playing field to be part of the political decision-making process. (Rao, 2016) At present in the Rajya Sabha, there are 31 women members out of a total of 244 members, which is just 12.7 per cent of the Upper House. Further, in the Lok Sabha, there are only 66 women MPs out of 543, which comprise a sheer 12.2 per cent of the strength. The 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution of India, passed in 1993, have taken women in the government’s decision-making procedure by reserving one-third of the seats for women in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), but still today women are not empowered to take independent decisions. Further, even after 22 years of its launch in 1996, the ‘Women’s Reservation Bill’, which reserves 33 per cent seats in the Lok Sabha and all State Legislative Assemblies for women is still pending deliberately.

Women in Assembly Elections 2017

The irony lies in the fact that in the Himalayan hills, which are dotted with temples of goddesses, the sharp contrast of inadequate women participation in the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections comes out in bold relief. There were only 19 women out of a total of 337 candidates (5.6 per cent), who battled for a spot in the Himachal Pradesh Assembly, and four women regestered success while only one woman was included in the Himachal Pradesh Cabinet. The main parties, the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), contested all the 68 seats. The BJP won the elections with 44 seats in the 2017 State Assembly polls including three women. The Congress, on the other hand, could secure only 21 seats comprising one woman candidate. The BJP fielded the maximum of six women candidates, the Indian National Congress fielded three, the BSP also fielded three, and the Swabhiman Party and Rashtriya Azad Manch fielded two women each. Three women dared to contest the elections as independent candidates.

It proves that patriarchy runs deep in this hill State despite the fact that Himachal Pradesh has 50 per cent reservation for women in the Panchayati Raj Institutions and local bodies. There were a total of 50.2 lakh voters—consisting of over 25.6 lakh male and 24.5 lakh female voters—at 7525 polling stations across the State. However, more women voters over 19,10,582 (77.76 per cent) participated in the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections this year than men 18,11,061 (71.53 per cent) with the total turnout recording 74.61 per cent. When Himachal Pradesh held its second State Assembly elections in 1967 for the first time, there were two women out of the 267 contestants but neither of them won the elections.

Low female political participation is not a problem in Himachal Pradesh alone. The situation is no better in one of the just concluded elections to the 182-member Gujarat State Assembly where the number of women legislators in the State Assembly has gone down from 16 in 2012 to 13 (7.1 per cent) in 2017. That is a far cry from the 33 per cent reservation for women. The Gujarat Assembly has never had more than 16 women legislators at a time. In the 2017 elections, there were only 122 women (seven per cent) out of a total of 1815 candidates in the fray. The female participation is so low that voters rarely have the option even to vote for a female candidate.

Political participation of women is also quite low in the other States that went to the polls in 2017. This year, elections took place across five States (Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Manipur, Punjab and Uttarakhand). Out of 2979 candidates in all the States, there were just 234 women in fray. And out of these 234, only 53 women were elected. The Uttarakhand State elected just five women legislators in a House of 70. Uttar Pradesh is also a patriarchal State no less; it elected 38 women legislators in a House of 403. In Punjab, only six women made it to the House of 117. Manipur and Goa boast of two women each in their 60- and 40-member Assemblies, respectively.

Challenges of Women’s Political Participation

“Gender inequality is not one homogenous phenomenon, but a collection of disparate and inter-linked problems.” (Sen, 2001) In India, political participation of women is quite low as compared to men because several cultural and societal barriers hinder women’s political participation and decision-making. There is a lot of violence, discrimination, illiteracy and unawareness in the society. Problems like sexual abuse, torture, child marriage and domestic violence have lowered their political opportu-nities.

Further, the burden of household work, less knowledge about their political rights, low social exposure, poverty and discriminatory attitudes of people towards women as leaders have kept little public space for them as compared to men in the political arena. Women experience harassment by being denied information, ignored or silenced in meetings, and in some cases removed from their elected position, abused and discriminated by the patriarchal male-dominated society. Women are contributing a lot to the Indian economy but their work always remains unrecognised. They are less paid as compared to men whether it is domestic work, on farms, in businesses, as employees or as entrepreneurs.

Other factors like dominance of patriarchal values in the society, criminalisation of politics in India, lack of access and control over income and other resources, restriction to public spaces and insensitive legal systems continue to lower their self-confidence, effective political participation, and decisionmaking. Feminism and women empower-ment are misunderstood as women’s issues but actually these are men’s issues. The problem of gender inequality in India is the problem of male culture, which affects both women and girls. (Kumari, 2016) Women need to confront these obstacles to have access to participate in governance. (Pande, 2017)

The Way Ahead

The bitter truth is that in India, which still requires schemes like ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ against the most horrific societal discriminations like female foeticide, women are treated as ‘second class citizens’ and denied their rights; hence their political status has remained relatively low. No doubt, various constitutional amendments, Acts are able to create a political space for women but they are not capable to guarantee a non-discriminatory environment for women to participate. Reservation of seats for women in panchayat or Parliament is the first step to confirm that a definite number of women will be taken in the decision-making process of the government. The very next stage is to enhance their capacity so that they can perform their roles appropriately and build a democratic equal society.

There is a critical need to bring back on the table for discussion the ‘Women’s Reservation Bill’, which guarantees 33 per cent reservation to women in the Lok Sabha and in all State Legislative Assemblies. There is an urgent need to eradicate the social taboos on women, challenge unjust laws, equalisation of educational opportunities, mobilise women politically, influence policies and sexist cultural practices, and ultimately accomplish their active political participation in the development process.

Women’s equal political participation, access and exposure to leadership positions at all levels are essential to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and gender equality in India.

References

Kumari, R. (2016, September), ‘Growing violence against women’, Yojana, 60: 53-55.

Pande, I. (2017, December 10), ‘Women’s quest for representation in House’, The Sunday Tribune: 9.

Rao, B. (2016, March 6), Women in Parliament: Where does India figure among the rest of the World? Retrieved from https://factly.in/women-in-parliament

Sen, A. (2001, September 17), ‘The many faces of gender inequality’, The New Republic: 466-477.

UN Women (n.d.), Women in Politics 2017 map. Retrieved from http://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/

Dr Archna Katoch is presently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Writing, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. She can be contacted at e-mail: archnakatoch3[at]gmail.com

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62