Nari Shakti: For how long must women be patient?

The Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks India at No. 141 out of 185 countries with 15.2% women’s representation.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks India at No. 141 out of 185 countries with 15.2% women’s representation.


  • Women have been denied a rightful share in power for longer than anyone’s memory can stretch back, but what’s still being stretched is our patience on a long promised rebalance

Good things come to those who wait’ is a saying advocating patience and stoicism, but women have been waiting far too long for the women’s reservation bill that seeks to reserve a third of seats in Parliament and all legislative assemblies for women. The government introduced the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam 2023 in Parliament on Tuesday and it passed the Lok Sabha on Wednesday after a discussion that had Sonia Gandhi, Kanimozhi, Supriya Sule and others speaking on the long-awaited legislation. The Bill is now on the verge of final approval, but even so, provisions requiring an all-India Census and constituency revamp before it is implemented suggest that a general election in 2029 may well be the first in which 33% of seats will be kept aside for women. That’s at least five more years of waiting for a rebalance that has been hanging fire for more than 30 years. For whatever virtues it has, must we test the patience of women this way?

Indian political parties have always declared themselves in favour of women’s empowerment. Yet, such a bill had been moved thrice before but not passed, indicating that male politicians have been reluctant to share power and perhaps see reservations as a crutch rather than a worthy tool. Women’s representation at the panchayat and municipality level was introduced in 1992-93, and contrary to stereotypical beliefs, various studies have shown that women leaders use political authority for the benefit of all their constituents, not just women. Without reserved seats, women are less able to participate fully in democracy as equal citizens. Bangladesh holds 50 of 300 (or 16%) seats in Parliament for women, and 21% of its elected representatives are women. Countries like Norway, Sweden and South Africa, where over 45% of law-makers are female, have no quotas but political parties ensure that certain seats are contested only by women. In our current Lok Sabha, 82 of its 539 members are women. We elect fewer women than most other countries. The Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks India at No. 141 out of 185 countries with 15.2% women’s representation. Rwanda tops the list with 61% women in Parliament, followed by Cuba with 55%. At the state level in India, only 8% of legislators are women. While the bill’s aim is to boost female representation in New Delhi as well as state capitals, it will have a greater impact at the state level if enacted. In Mizoram, for instance, the current assembly has no women members, although women voters outnumber men.

Having a seat at the table and a voice is a big step towards empowerment, but representation by itself will never be enough to ensure that elected women carry out their law-making charge independently. In Indian politics, we can’t over-estimate the role of a complex matrix of influence, money, caste and community networks and other tangibles and intangibles, which can easily outweigh ability and ideas. Structural inequalities, societal exclusion and centuries of discrimination ensure that women and other genders rarely get to win. The sustained participation of women in politics, therefore, requires not just a quota, but a host of reforms and policies for gender equality in all institutions of democracy and governance. Even if it’s implemented swiftly, the women’s reservation bill would be just the first step. Women have waited far too long for an equal say in decision-making. Let’s not let this chance for a great rebalance languish or pass us by.

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