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The history of gender quotas in India

In 1995, at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, the then First Lady Hillary Clinton gave the slogan: “Women’s rights are human rights,” she insisted it in front of an audience of world leaders.

Thousands of delegates at the Conference passed a resolution to remove all “obstacles to women’s active participation in all spheres of public and private life”. They decided on a target of 30 per cent women in decision-making to be achieved through a wide range of strategies, including positive action, public debate, and training and mentoring of women as leaders.

Since then around 100 countries globally have introduced affirmative action policies for women in public leadership.

This push has contributed to the impressive increase in the representation of women in legislatures and parliaments. The global average of women in national parliaments has more than doubled, from 11.3 per cent in 1995 to 24.3 per cent in 2018. The greatest stride was made in Rwanda, which saw an exponential growth from 18 per cent to 61 per cent, making it the highest women represented parliament in the world.

India, the world’s largest democracy, ranks 149th out of 193 countries in representation of women in its national parliament, as on 1st January 2019.

The recently concluded national elections saw a marginal increase, from 11.8 per cent to 14.6 per cent, in the number of women elected in the Lower House of the Indian Parliament. The improvement, while welcome, is still around 10 per cent lower than the global average.

In the last few years, gender quotas have been a talking point in India since the introduction of the Women’s Reservation Bill in 2008. The Bill mandated a 33 per cent quota for women in the national parliament and state legislatures on a rotational basis, meaning a seat/constituency was to be reserved for women in one election, but not in the following two. In the following two elections, the adjoining two constituencies would be reserved respectively. Thus, after a cycle of three elections, all constituencies would have been reserved once.

It aimed to ensure at least one-third women representation in the legislative process. The Upper House of Indian parliament passed the Bill in 2010. As required by the Indian Constitution, the Bill went to the Lower House for its assent so that it could be enacted into a law. However, it failed to gather the support of the members and was not even discussed. When the Lower House’s tenure ended in 2014, the Bill lapsed.

Ironically, India implemented gender quotas long before the global resolution.

In 1993, two years before the Beijing Conference, India introduced gender quotas in its third tier of government, namely the local governments, through Constitutional amendments. Within two decades, this move notably increased the representation of women in these elected bodies from a mere 3-4 per cent to an impressive 43 per cent. According to a study conducted by Harvard University in Indian villages, it was found that local governments led by women outperformed those governed by men in terms of access to healthcare, infrastructure, public delivery of services, and education attainment of girls. Another similar study found that, “Village councils headed by women can catalyse change…. By creating empowered female role models, it led villagers to state more equal aspirations for their teenage sons and daughters, and to reduce their daughters’ domestic chores and increase their schooling”.

In a deeply patriarchal society like India, these are phenomenal testimonials for female leadership.

Unfortunately, due to lack of policies to uplift these proven women leaders to higher rungs of government, namely the state legislatures and national parliament, their aspirations remain limited to local governance.

With the backdrop of these note-worthy positive trends for women leaders locally, one would expect a political consensus to implement a similar policy in higher governments. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth as was evident by the failure to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill.

Even in the recent elections, although the majority of the political parties pledged in their manifestos to implement the Women’s Reservation Bill, the total number of female candidates was just 8.9 per cent, much less than the promised 33 per cent.

This was not because women were not interested in candidacy but because political parties did not feel obligated to field women candidates in the absence of a mandatory gender quota. As a woman who has been working in the Indian political system for more than half a decade now, I have seen a continuous growth in the number of women joining politics over the years. Unfortunately, the retention rate is low because pursuing a career in politics is a long journey, and it takes years to reach the top echelons.

Many of these talented, passionate, and hardworking women leave the system after a few years due to various familial, social, and financial pressure. The few women who do survive these challenges have to perpetually fight the misogyny of party-members, sexism of voters, and systemic barriers created by their own parties.

In the absence of a gender quota, women representation in Indian politics will continue to remain marginal, causing a massive deficit in our democracy. The repercussions of skewed gender representation are not limited to politics alone. Our society is poorer due to lack of diverse voices in leadership positions.

Democracy is a means to right historical wrongs.

A deficit in a democracy is a fundamental flaw and it is incumbent upon the lawmakers to urgently rectify it. The Indian Parliament has, since independence, legislated often to provide succour to sections that have been discriminated against. It is high time that it enacts the Women’s Reservation Bill into an effective policy and provide a ray of hope to more than 500 million Indian women that they can play a crucial role in politicking. If not now, then when?

(This article was published on Apolitical for a global audience and can be accessed here.)


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