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Sent: Monday, 11 May, 2009 8:31:13
Subject: [IHRO] Women in Indian Politics: A Bird's Eyeview
Friday, 8 May 2009
INDIAN ELECTIONS - III
WOMEN IN INDIAN POLITICS
Kolkata—In 2007 I met Suman Krishan Kant, widow of late Krishan Kant, a former Vice President of India. It was a palpably exciting time as she received delegates, checked files and dictated notes to her secretary. And with reason. The United Women's Front (UWF)— the first all India women's political party— was being launched with Kant as its President. 2007 had been a memorable year for Indian women as it also saw the first woman President—Pratibha Patil—being sworn into office.
India is one of the few countries where women got universal suffrage without a struggle and the Constitution guarantees them equal rights. Women are visible in every aspect of public life, holding some of the top positions in the government and corporate sectors. The country had been one of the first to have a woman Prime Minister. On the other hand, millions of women live in poverty, illiteracy, and ill-health.
Census 2001 figures indicate that 245 million Indian women are illiterate. According to the third National Family Health Survey (NFHS-III) 2007, 25 percent of Indian women work without pay, while 40 percent face domestic violence. Cross-border trafficking of women and girls is a major problem. Yet, the government's expenditure on education and public health has fallen.
The Women's Reservation Bill, which calls for 33 percent reservation for women in Parliament, has been awaiting parliamentary approval since 1996, though different parties have been in power since.
A bill for the prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace was drafted and was supposed to have been passed by Parliament in 2007, but has not as yet.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was passed by Parliament in 2005. Yet lawyers lament that the necessary infrastructure is not in place for them to handle cases brought under the Act.
It was to correct these wrongs that the UWF was created, Kant had said. However, in these elections, there is not even a whiff of the party in the campaign trails.
That probably mirrors the reality of women's participation in India's political life. With 106 women in the incumbent Parliament, India's average of women in the national parliament is a mere 8.8%.
As per the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts, all local elected bodies reserve one-third of their seats for women. Although the percentages of women in various levels of political activity has risen considerably— many parties are headed by women and states have women Chief Minister—women are still under-represented in governance and decision making positions
'All political parties have let women down,' says Ranjana Kumari, Director of Centre for Social Research, and President Women Power Connect (WPC). WPC is a lobby group floated to pressure and inform legislation for women's rights and empowerment. 'The patriarchal mindset in India does not allow for women's representation. Women are kept as party workers but not included in decision making. Men feel insecure that women will be taking away their seats, so they field fewer women candidates.'
This is borne out by statistics: the Indian National Congress (INC), headed by Sonia Gandhi, a woman, has given tickets to only 34 women out of a total of 255 candidates. Of the 365 candidates of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), only 34 are women. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Ms. Kumari Mayawati has only 11 women candidates from its total of 182.
Even the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had fielded only four women candidates from its total of 70 candidates. It was on the party's insistence that the Common Minimum Program, adopted by the incumbent UPA government, had included the passage of the Women's Reservation Bill in Parliament.
This is an outcome of the fact that decision making bodies in almost all political parties was in the hands of men.
'Even in dynastic politics we find that it is the sons and not the daughters that are nurtured to take on the political mantle from their parent,' continues Kumari. She points to the example of Rahul Gandhi, the son of Sonia Gandhi and grandson of Indira Gandhi. Rahul, and not his sister Priyanka, has been weaned into politics.
Yet women do have the pull factor. For example, the face of Rahul Gandhi's campaign has been his sister Priyanka. She had earlier campaigned for her mother and in these elections has turned out to be far more media savvy than Rahul, and a greater crowd puller.
The Samajwadi Party has roped in former Miss India and actress Nafisa Ali, in a bid to woo its now alienated Muslim 'vote bank' in the city of Lucknow.
Two high profile professionals contesting as Independents this year, because they want to 'bring in change', are women: banker Meera Sanyal and danseuse Mallika Sarabhai.
Kumari feels these exceptions are few and far in between and even ironic and holds women responsible too for the dismal scenario.
'In many parties, women too are hesitant to take on more assertive roles.' She points to parties like BSP and Trinamool Congress, headed by women, Kumari Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee respectively. 'Do you see any other woman playing a serious role or being groomed to take on the political mantle?' As a social scientist, Kumar says, she feels that women in positions of power feel insecure to have other powerful women around them.
And so once again women's issues take a back seat. Across the country parties talk of development, security, and the failures of other parties. But there is hardly any talk of the women's reservation bill or gender budgeting.
Kalpana Sharma, former Mumbai bureau head of The Hindu finds it ironic that though now more women are prominent in politics across parties, their overall representation has decreased. 'Manifestos pay token service to women's issues. There is particular resistance to women's reservation in Parliament as then women's numbers will jump and they will be seriously into decision-making.'
Five years of governance by the UPA, led by the INC headed by a woman, has left women across India—almost half the electorate—disappoin ted.
(Aditi Bhaduri is an independent journalist based in India, writing for the Indian and international media.)