One of the central features of a working democratic polity is fairness in political decisions. Sydney Verba, in his work Fairness, Equality, And Democracy: Three Big Words and Voice and Equality, suggests that political equality and democratic participation are central to the conception of a fair democratic polity. “Since democracy implies not only government responsiveness to citizen interests but equal consideration of the interests of all citizens, democratic participation must also be equal”, he writes.
With independence, while women received the right to vote on an equal footing with men, the journey of equal political participation has remained grossly unequal. Their political exclusion from democratic processes becomes explicit when one looks at their participation in representative institutions. The 17th Lok Sabha which marks a historic high in terms of the number of women parliamentarians in India, still registers an abysmal 14.6% women MPs, much below the global average of 25.5% (in lower chambers and unicameral legislative bodies).
The impact of a dismal women’s participation in democratic decision-making makes itself known in several indicators. The Gender Gap Index of 2021, released by World Economic Forum, ranks India at 140 among 156 countries, slipping 28 places further from 112 in 2020. The report mentions that the share of women in the Parliament of India remains stagnant at 14.4% whereas the share of women ministers declined from 23.1% to 9.1% between January 2019 and 2021. Not surprisingly, it states that “most of the decline has occurred on the Political Empowerment sub-index” where India regressed 13.5 percentage points.
Women’s Reservations: Too Little, Too Late?
A noteworthy contrast is presented by several sub-Saharan countries, which even though categorized as “Least Developed Countries” owing to their abysmally low national income, economic vulnerability and low human assets, rank higher on the above parameters. LDCs such as Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique appear in the top 35 of the Index. One reason behind the impressive record at political empowerment is that these countries provide gender-based quota to women through legislative or constitutional means. Tanzania and Uganda were one of the early adopters, choosing to introduce women reservation in their legislatures as early as 1985 and 1989 respectively. Djibouti enacted reserved seats quotas for the first time in 2018, and its percentage of women lawmakers shot up by 15%.
India’s involvement with the women’s reservation debate goes back to at least three decades. The latter decades of the 20th century beginning 1960s, was when the question of who can represent the interests of the oppressed or marginalized heavily debated within the academia and more importantly in various social movements across the globe. India also witnessed a shift towards a politics of representation- that is, the ‘politics of presence’, most pronouncedly with the second democratic upsurge of late 1980s and 90s. In 1993, the country instituted 33% reserved seats for women at the local government level.
A similar success however has been elusive at the level of national and state legislatures. Since 1996, the women’s reservation bill has been introduced and lapsed repeatedly in the parliament, the most recent version being the 108th constitution amendment bill 2008. A major concern with the present version is its non-inclusion of sub- categorization of seats for women from backward classes, a suggestion that was made by the report examining the original 1996 bill.
As the women’s reservation bill got mired in question of who can represent, the effectiveness of women’s reservation even where it was instituted remained in doubt. The criticisms of proxy representation at local level are widespread. Moreover in a time of Mandal, Mandir, Market – as the democratic platform became unprecedentedly complex with the emergence of new regional actors and social cleavages, the question of women’s representation was ‘de-politicized’ (and co-opted?) through ‘localization’. It is interesting to note that the 73rd Amendment Act provided reservation to women in local bodies, during the same decade when the bill for reservation in the parliament was not taken up as a matter of firm political commitment!
It may be argued that the question of reservation for women despite being one that was taken up through concerted women’s movement; the issue has not politicized the gender cleavage the way other social cleavages have undergone. Anne Phillip’s observation strikes resonance here, “So, while concerns about social divisiveness and sectional narrowing are part of the standard fare in arguments against other forms of group-based representation, opponents of gender quotas are most likely to take their stand on a general critique of affirmative action, on the paucity of experienced women, and the risk that the overall calibre of politicians will fall.” Thus, the prevalent emotion against gender-based reservation is not one expressed against identity politics in general, but a specific one which deflects the issue away from politics framing it either as a non-entity or as a privileged demand- denying ‘gender’ any agency in “messing up” the political space.
The decade of 1990s, marking a political churning whereby new marginalities were increasingly getting mainstreamed, ensured that the category of ‘women’ is recognised in its internal differentiation with respect to access to resources and opportunities. This got reflected in the debates on the bills tabled in 1990s and 2000s, specifically around the contention of ‘quota within the quota’. What explains the fact that the bills never got passed is the oft-repeated “lack of political will” but also a more fundamental reason.
The members from backward communities resented that an undifferentiated quota for ‘women’ is a conscious strategy of enhancing upper caste, upper class representation and of diluting caste-based reservation. This reflects the widespread assumption, not unfounded, that women leaders generally come from an upper caste, upper class strata, and thus moving towards sub category reservation for women, rather than a separate quota for women as an undifferentiated group (in which case then, the upper caste has higher representation since most women would be from their communities), was a call by representatives of backward communities to counter that strategy ensuring representation for their communities.
The debate fell short of recognising that the systematic discrimination against women as a group was the preliminary ground on which reservation was being demanded and the issue of sub categorization, in as much as it held meaning in that context, was also about the further exploitation that forms part of the experience of say a dalit woman which is very different from a brahmin woman.
Neither is the assumption about dominance of certain sections of women wrongly placed, given the dominance of affluent class women in the political space, nor is the resentment about frustrating prospects for backward communities completely innocent. The point, therefore, is not to argue in favour of (or against) any such claims or assumptions but to point out further how the politics within the identity politics carefully exempts gender of any sustained thought in its own terms, remaining largely subsumed under disparate political calculations and concerns. Women here seemed like cogs in existing reservation machinery not worthy of being an end that needed to be pursued for its own distinctive cause.
The exclusion of dalit, adivasi and OBC women from the social imagination of political configuration of our society suggests that reservation can only be one form of redress that definitely needs to be complemented with other struggles and institutional responses.
While India faces these roadblocks, practices from other countries exemplify remarkable political will, learning from which could be helpful in according substantive representation to women across class, caste and other divisions in India.
Lessons in Women’s Representation: Experiments That India Can Draw Upon
Rwanda is the first country in the world with women dominated Parliament, with about 61% women parliamentarians. The higher presence of women in the parliament is both a result of the tumultuous history of genocide that drastically reduced the male population in Rwanda, as well as the post-genocide resolve for recovery. The new constitution of 2003 provided for 30% representation of women in the lower chamber. Later that year, women occupied 49% seats in the chamber and that number increased to 63.8% in 2015. What explains the high representation besides the constitutionally mandated quota are certain innovative practices worth highlighting.
First, Rwanda has voluntary party quota for women. Each party has certain candidature reserved for women which ensures that more women run for elections. When more women, having gone through the same competitive and grassroots processes of electoral democracy join in, this not only ensures higher numerical probability but also effective representation. The voluntary party quota has been taken up by many countries. South Africa presents an interesting case, which has increased its share of women’s legislators at national level from 2% in 1990 to 46.1% in 2021, without the aid of a legislated reservation mechanism at the local level. The 50% women reservation in local councils and the voluntary party quota adopted by African National congress of “not less than fifty percent of women in all elected structures” go a long way in creating a snowball or contagion effect with respect to substantive political empowerment of the women.
Voluntary party quota takes the form of the zipper system in Sweden, and is described as “gender quota system whereby women and men are placed alternately on all party lists”. Interestingly, Sweden boasted of around 30% women in its legislatures even before the introduction of voluntary party quotas through 1980s and 1990s. The spirited debate over women’s representation through 1967- 72 among political parties, women’s groups in political parties and government and civil society was key to this achievement.
Further women caucuses in many countries help in the capacity building of women MPs to facilitate their effective participation. Tanzanian Women Parliamentary Group, formed in 1997, helps new female MPs in building their confidence and understanding of the system. It thus strengthens their capacity to mainstream gender equality within parliamentary affair. In the Indian context, the problems of proxy representation and co-option witnessed at the level of local self-governments could be partially addressed when followed up by such practices.
Women’s caucus in Rwanda presents another interesting and noteworthy innovation. The Rwanda Women Parliamentary Forum developed a strategy wherein the veteran women lawmakers switched from reserved to open seats, thus leaving open the former for newcomers. This ensured the entry of new women lawmakers in the parliament. As more women get to occupy seats, the probability of the representation being equitable even within the category of ‘women’ is higher.
In Africa, the political will at the national and the political party level is matched by the enthusiasm for women’s representation at the regional level. The Declaration on Gender and Development, signed by members of South African Development Community in 1997, committed them to use ‘whatever methods available to increase the participation of women at all levels of decision making to 30% by 2005’. The African Union, comprising of 55 African states from the continent provides for a 50% quota for women in all AU structures and at all levels.
Voluntary party system, women’s caucus, spirited multi-stakeholder debate and regional-collective push for women’s political empowerment are equally necessary components with which women’s reservation efforts at national and state level need to be supplemented for effective participation.
India so far could be said to be a negative outlier when it comes to women’s representation and reservation in political decision-making bodies. More than 100 countries across world, including Pakistan and most of the sub-Saharan countries have gender-based quota! The legislation for women’s reservation in India, is long due and the legislative bodies must take active initiative in bringing it about. However, this is still only the first step which India is yet to take. To ensure that the delay reflects the wisdom accumulated over the lost decades, the due voice of the marginalized within the margins must be heard.
Monika is an Mphil Research Scholar at Center for Political Studies, JNU. Her research interests include gender and sexuality, sexual violence and law, political philosophy and political economy of the Indian State.
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