Posted by Soumya Singhal
Representation starts at the inception. The inter-Parliamentary Union’s data indicates that women are largely absent from policymaking in India. This absence affects the primacy given to women’s issues like the gender pay gap, maternal healthcare, and gender violence in the legislature.
Additionally, the discourse on women’s issues has often been linear in public policy. Women’s participation has been closely tied to their numbers in decision-making institutions and bodies. Quantitative representation is seen as a precursor to qualitative representation.
To expand women’s representation, conversations around women in public policy must start with recognising them as equal stakeholders. Our understanding of “stakeholders” must go beyond decision-makers to include those affected by the decisions. Policies for women will flounder without women.
Institutions for women, institutions without women
Even though the recent general elections have seen an increase in the female Members of Parliament (figure 1), women constitute a mere 15 percent of the Lok Sabha. While the expansion of the 2021 Union Council of Ministers saw the highest number of women M.Ps in 17 years, they still only constituted 11 out of 78 ministers.
2022 saw the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) nominate about 26 percent or 177 women out of the total selected 685 candidates for appointment in the Civil Services. Despite more women entering the administrative cadre through the Civil Services Examination, no more than 19 percent make it to the post of the District Magistrate, across the country.
The United Nations-mandated subgoal 5.5 on Gender Equality works to “ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic, and public life.” The goal recognises the need for women’s active participation in institutional decision-making for effective gender equality.
The metric for assessing participation and opportunities is the “percentage of seats held by women and minorities in the national parliament and/or sub-national elected office according to their respective share of the population.” However, it is yet to be seen if these indicators and solutions are even comprehensive in the first place, especially when data on national figures indicate otherwise. With a dismal presence in institutional policy-making, the discussion around women’s participation becomes critical.
For over a decade, the representation of women in Indian legislatures has centred around the long impending Women’s Reservation Bill. Moreover, the bill itself is a result of decades of sustained efforts to ensure the presence of more women in Parliament. The 2008 amendment mandates reserving one-third of the seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies. It also seeks to reserve one-third of the total seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies for women. As stated in the bill’s objectives and reiterated by the then Minister of Law and Social Justice, H. R. Bhardwaj, the bill seeks to politically empower women.
Further deliberations on the bill by a specially appointed Standing Committee in 2009 brought forth newer nuances. It suggested that reservations for women amongst different constituencies be proportionate to their population in the constituency. Additionally, seats occupied by marginalised women must also be in proportion to their population in the said social group.
This suggestion ties in with the UN’s SDG 5.5 indicator. Debates also highlighted a strong difference of opinions among the members of the committee. While some staunchly believed that women could not be politically empowered without quotas, others opined that mere provision of quotas could not undo social inequity and gender discrimination.
The discussions around women’s representation in political spaces have highlighted the need to adopt a more holistic lens rather than one that only focuses on numbers. Questions on the representation of women in decision-making roles must go beyond asking “how many women participate” to “how gender representative are institutions.”
Policy for women, women for policy
Public policy think tanks and other civil society organisations have expanded the scope of women’s participation in public policy, creating a new avenue for women’s representation in decision-making. Think tanks create a multidimensional ecosystem of institutional policy-makers, academia, media, and the social sector. In stride with this change, SPRF India, a non-partisan solution-oriented think tank, explores the horizontalisation and intersectionality of policy research with gender at its centrefold.
SPRF’s focus on gender as one of its key thematic areas draws from the need to re-envision the intersection of gender with public policy. Since its inception in 2018, SPRF has built on a series of research outputs and projects that bring the often-overlooked voices of women, the transgender community, and other marginalised gender minorities to centre stage.
In an attempt to bring together policy trends and human narratives, SPRF’s research focuses have explored the interaction of gender with labour, healthcare and biomedicine, conflict, and climate change. Through its solution-oriented approach, SPRF recognises the need to view gender, not as an isolated category. Instead, it emphasises the urgency to create a more collaborative, representative, and inclusive public policy landscape.
The partnerships we build highlight policy-relevant questions across fields. Hence, SPRF engages with stakeholders in educational institutions, social sector organisations, government bodies, and scholars to deliver accessible, holistic, and robust policy research. Moreover, as an organisation founded and headed by a woman, SPRF believes in creating agential women leaders.
Therefore, representation at SPRF is embraced through what we produce, who produces it, and how we showcase it. Going forward, SPRF wishes to diversify its gender-based research into as yet untapped areas and suggest sustainable pathways to gender mainstream public policies in India.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a collaboration with SPRF India, a policy think tank headquartered in New Delhi that is democratising public policy using a solution-oriented, intersectional, and nonpartisan methodology. You can access their work here
Soumya Singhal is the Associate and Coordinator for Research and Partnerships at SPRF India
Featured Illustration: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India