Home / Politics / Policy /  Going beyond women’s reservation

New Delhi: The recently dissolved Lok Sabha had 61 women members of Parliament (MPs), the highest since 1951, but far fewer than the long-demanded 33% of the 545-seat Lower House. But numbers are not the only problem in a profession riven with gender inequalities.

A look at the performance of women MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha shows that many simply fitted in rather than stood out.

While a few represented their constituents with dedication and hard work, the overall trend points to a need for better training and going beyond reserving seats.

Except for a few politicians, most elected female representatives have a limited or marginal role in important discussions within their political party or within the national decision-making processes, according to a recent study, Violence against Women in Politics, released by the Centre for Social Research (CSR) and supported by UN Women.

Even in the list of current Union ministers, women hold social and cultural development portfolios rather than political or economic ones.

Girija Vyas, minister for housing and urban poverty alleviation, and Chandresh Kumari Katoch, minister for culture, are the only women in the 30-member cabinet. Rajya Sabha member Kumari Selja, elected four times from Haryana, was social justice and empowerment minister before she resigned to contest for membership of the Upper House. It reflects a vicious cycle—women are not given the opportunity to speak on a number of serious issues, and then end up being handed what are seen as light portfolios.

“Parties allot time slots and they do not give women the opportunity to talk on issues such as defence, economics, foreign affairs, commerce. Only with the help of reservation, will the women be in large numbers and then easily pressurize their parties to let them speak," says CSR director and feminist Ranjana Kumari.

Rama Devi, a two-time Lok Sabha MP of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from Sheohar, Bihar, touched on the constraints women face while arguing for the inclusion of those who are socially and economically backward in the Socio-Economic and Caste Census.

“To be a parliamentarian means to be able to confer, but often the voice is snatched away," she said in Hindi.

However, Rama Devi has raised issues like smuggling and the poor record of the railways in adding new tracks.

Even though the number of women entering politics in India is increasing steadily, this has not necessarily impacted on legislative priorities. Almost all the women members in their questions have raised issues such as infrastructure, roads, rail, drinking water, health and, more recently, the quality of mobile phone connectivity. Most have mentioned women-related issues at least once, and brought up issues of gender equity, children, elderly and the socially backward.

However, only eight have introduced private member Bills—those that are not initiated by the government.

The Bills introduced cover a wide range of topics from correcting the schedule of tribes to ensuring deposit insurance protects the entire amount of a depositor. However, pointing to the need for training and briefing on issues, at least two members proposed a two-child norm, whereas gender ratios are often found to be skewed in countries with such coercive rules.

“In 2000, a number of members of Parliament got together to ensure that a two-child norm does not become part of the population policy that was being formulated then," said Poonam Muttreja, executive director at New Delhi-based policy think tank Population Foundation of India.

Education is an important catalyst. Women MPs who have had a substantial contribution to the introduction and passage of legislation are graduates at the least, except the BJP’s Jayshreeben Patel and Maneka Gandhi.

Patel introduced the Prohibition of Human Trafficking of Indian Citizens Abroad and Welfare of Overseas Indians Bill, while Gandhi introduced a draft law to make parties ensure a third of their candidates are women.

According to PRS legislative research, 32% of women MPs elected in 2009 have a postgraduate or doctoral degree.

The corresponding figure for men is 30%. While 42% of women MPs have a graduate degree, the number is 46% for men. In the 14th Lok Sabha, 30% of women had bachelor’s degrees and 58% had higher degrees.

A mix of experience, political grounding and academic awareness determines whether a woman MP will introduce a piece of legislation.

Two-time MP, the Congress’s Priya Sunil Dutt has participated in 18 debates, asked 160 questions and focused on children, illegal abortion clinics, female foeticide and child labour. Her well-researched questions also reflect her political grounding gained by greater exposure to public life.

Dutt—whose actor father Sunil Dutt was a former sports minister and mother Nargis a nominated Rajya Sabha member—proposed laws to rehabilitate destitute children, provide social security to writers and artists, and amendments to the law protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

Supriya Sadanand Sule, whose website labels her a performing member, has similar pedigree. Her father, four-time Maharashtra chief minister Sharad Pawar, was elected seven times to the Lok Sabha. She has introduced draft laws to, among other things, make voting compulsory, make marriage registration mandatory, and provide free and compulsory education to girls.

However, few of Sule’s 731 questions relate to local-level issues in her constituency Baramati in Maharashtra.

There are outliers like Saroj Pandey, a social worker representing Chhattisgarh’s Durg. She has introduced four Bills, including one seeking to open Parliament and state legislative assemblies and councils to younger members, and has asked 435 questions on issues including human trafficking.

Not all women MPs coming from a political background are as articulate as Dutt or Sule. The Congress’s Pratibha Singh and the Samajwadi Party’s Dimple Yadav have both never asked a question in their entire term.

Singh, Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh’s wife, participated in just one debate—demanding rehabilitation of flood-affected victims—even though her attendance was 100%. Yadav, wife of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, has participated in four debates with a 37% attendance.

Weak participation and insufficient grounding in key issues reflect a much wider malaise in legislatures across India, among both men and women lawmakers.

However, as first time MP and wife of Punjab deputy chief minister, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, put it, even with reservation and training, gender inequality in society will still be reflected in these bodies.

In her inaugural speech on the floor of the Lok Sabha, Badal said, “When there is no drinking water, (and when) she has to go to the toilet under the cover of darkness. If there is a village school, if there are no teachers; there is no dispensary and there is no healthcare, how is this little girl ever going to get educated and to become the sarpanch (village council chief) or to reach this Parliament?"

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