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Women And The Indian Political Process

Women And Politics

Women empowerment is a government slogan. Determined women are craving their own niche in every field including those which were entirely male dominated till 1947. Despite all this they remain second class citizens in almost every sense in rural areas across India. Crime against women continues to increase and female foeticide is very common among educated women.

Women are made to account for themselves all the time. They are expected to justify their actions. An explanation is demanded from an adult woman if she stays out late while a young teenage boy who stays out all night is not questioned.

The story does not end here. In fact what underlines the inferior status conferred upon woman is their status in the field of politics. Throughout the world women face obstacles to their participation in politics. In 2005, the rate of female representation was only 16% globally. The largest democracy in the world, India elected its first woman president in its 60th year of independence. This clearly reflects the position of women in Indian politics. The 1940's saw active political participation by Indian women in the national struggle for independence.

Recent reports in India indicate that many women politicians find it hard to participate in an effective manner in politics, this point to a pressing need to analyze the role that women play in Indian politics. Domestic responsibilities, lack of financial clout, growing criminalization of politics and the threat of character assassination have made it increasingly difficult for woman to be a part of the political frame work. Moreover, women politicians point out that even within the political parties, women are rarely found in leadership positions. Women have different strategies to cope with these constraints. If the family has accepted a woman's career in politics, she can negotiate with her family.

The majority of women in the Indian parliament are from the elite class. While their public role challenges some stereotypes, their class position often allows them a far greater range of options than are available to poorer women. Caste has been an important feature of Indian society and political life. Most of the women MPs in the tenth parliament were the members of the higher castes. It is important to guard against the making an easy correlation between caste and political representation. The influence of individual national leaders is also an important factor that militates against the male equivalence theory. While Indira Gandhi, for example, did little to promote women's representation in politics, Rajiv Gandhi accepted the principle of reservation of seats for women. He initiated measures that had a direct impact on the inclusion of women in politics.

Second and more important, we could explore the strategies that women employ to access the public sphere in the context of a patriarchal socio- political system. These women have been successful in subverting the boundaries of gender and in operating in a very aggressive male dominated sphere.

Could other women learn from this example?
The problem here is, of course, precisely that these women are an elite. The class from which most of these women come is perhaps the most important factor in their successful inclusion into the political system. We can, however, examine whether socio-political movements provide opportunities for women to use certain strategies that might be able to subvert the gender hierarchy in politics. Finally, we can explore the dynamics between institutional and grass root politics.

Women and the Indian political process

The crux of democracy lies with the people. Participation of the people grants legitimacy to the government. Though women from a sizable part of India's population, their political representation and the participation is definitely below the mark.

Of late the Rajya Sabha took a historic decision. It passed the bill which provides 33 per cent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. The bill seeks to reserve a third of the seats of the Lok Kk and state assemblies for 15 years on a rational basis. It was first introduced in 1996, but it took 14 years for another version of it to be put to vote. The move should have been through a long time back but nevertheless it is significant that it has been accomplished.

This will go a long way in empowering women in the decision making process. However, unruly scenes witnessed in the Rajya Sabha created by some MPs when bill was moved and its present fate in the Lok Sabha, whatever may be the reason, clearly indicate the fault lines when it comes to empowering women in patriarchal society. It is indeed ironical that we want to be called progressive but when it comes to the question of bestowing power to women we not only hesitate but also try to postpone the process.

We are not trying to rewrite gender history through this constitutional amendment so many years after independence, we are merely accepting the existence of one-half of the Indian population. But before we start appreciating that is a great step forward, it is imperative to understand the ground reality that the bill is still to be passed in the Lok Sabha. Then it must be sent to 28 state assemblies and at least half of them have to endorse it. This has to be followed by the president's assent to the bill to become an act. At present owing to the numbers factor in the Lok Sabha, the government doesn't seem to be in a position to move on the women's reservation bill.

The Indian constitution guarantees equal rights to all but positive conditions have to be created for women to enjoy these rights. Women have been given political rights without accompanying powers to exercise these rights. Economic and political powers go hand in hand. To make inroads into male dominated institutions, they need equal level playfield with men as they are financially disadvantaged and do not have access to economic resources.

First, the issue of women's political participation and empowerment cannot be confined to mere political rights. Education, social awareness and economic power are its important and basic components. Even today women empowerment remains a distant dream. It has been repeatedly seen that only few women make it to the point of political power. They are usually well to do people. Second, either they are the daughters or wives of politicians.

With the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, India moved towards a big change in our institutional frame work of governance. With 33 per cent reservation for women at the local level, that is, panchayaths and municipalities, it was a new beginning for women's empowerment. A new step, however small has been taken. Reservations in the panchayaths have shown that women not only stand for office and come to power but make positive use of it.

Through their participation in politics, women are making use of power and resources to bring about necessary changes. Water scarcity and education are two of the important issues that have been dealt with by women. Potable water through common tap has been brought in several villages.

In 2008, the ministry of panchaythi raj commissioned a detailed, quantitative and qualitative, country wide study of elected representatives in panchayaths, where one third of seats in PRIs are reserved for women. The study showed that reservation was the biggest reason of seats in panchayaths leading to more women in governing positions is worth emulating. In this context, the passage of the reservation bill through the Rajya Sabha is indeed path breaking.

The Way Forward.
The biggest embodiment of the widespread resistance against greater female participation in political processes is the consistent opposition to women's reservation bills which have been introduced and failed to pass in 1996, and again in 1998, 1999 and 2002. As India gears up for the world's largest election process, one cannot help but think of some of the unfulfilled promises made when a young India emerged amongst the preeminent democracies of the world.

Nearly 70 years since the enactment of our Constitution, the solemn vow in its Preamble to secure political justice and equality of opportunity remains only partially fulfilled. Women's position in electoral politics and governance stays far below representative levels, and policymaking and governance has long been the fiefdom of men, with few women managing to get past a rigid glass ceiling to enter Parliament.

The entry of women into politics has historically been met with dogged opposition across the world right from the earliest suffragettes in England who faced police brutality and sexual assault for daring to demand the right to vote, to modern elections where female candidates are attacked overtly and covertly on gender issues.

While there have been many significant victories for women's participation in politics in the intervening years, they are still met with skepticism, ridicule and objectification when stepping into the political fray. These are manifestations of an insecure patriarchy, jolted by the notion of women taking their place as leaders and decision-makers, representing their issues and interests instead of depending on men in power to do so.

Certain laws and policies, however, have given a boost to the representation of women in Indian politics. On 24 April 1993, the Constitutional (73rd Amendment) Act 1992 was passed, adding Part IX to the Constitution, giving constitutional recognition to Panchayathi Raj Institutions (PRIs). A new Article 243 D reserved a third of all PRI seats and the same proportion of offices of Chairperson for women, ushering in an era of female political representation across India's villages. In subsequent years, a number of states including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Kerala, Maharashtra and Tripura increased this reservation to 50%, and also provided for a similar reservation in Urban Local Bodies (ULBs).

Another challenge is the question of funding any pragmatic observer will admit that fighting an election is an expensive proposition. Given the low financial power of women in society on an average as compared with men, this becomes an additional hurdle, with most female candidates dipping into their personal or family coffers to fight this uphill battle, or relying on monetary help from supporters.

With all these challenges in mind, what could be a way forward? The passage of the Women's Reservation Bill would be an important step, allowing greater participation in the highest level of India's politics. Here, it is important to underline and differentiate the Indian perspective on quotas from that of the West.

For the dedicated campaigner for equal rights, it is important to remember that the struggle for empowerment is a long one. While the number of women candidates, as well as elected members, has steadily risen, growing from 326 candidates and 37 victors in 1991 to 668 candidates and 62 victors in 2014, this still counts for only 11.8% of total seats in the Lok Sabha. Far from the 50% target set by the UN's Sustainable Development Goal on Gender Equality, this is half of the 23.5% global average, signaling the need for continued and dedicated action on this front.

This should be a non-partisan issue, with all political parties uniting and supporting policy changes that make politics more representative. The promise of equality is a beautiful one, and one worth continuing to strive for in the face of daunting odds. In the inimitable words of the late Maya Angelou, 'We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated'.

Award Winning Article Is Written By: Ms.Juny Varghese
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