Women Reservation Bill 2023 & Breaking the ceiling of Political Participation
“Empowerment of women leads to development. And development leads to empowerment of women.”
-Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman, Finance Minister of India
In a country as diverse and dynamic as India, the participation of women in politics is a topic of paramount importance. Women make up roughly half of the population, and their engagement in governance is not only a matter of democratic representation but also a catalyst for social progress and development. Over the years, women have ventured into the corridors of power in various capacities, from the Lok Sabha to Rajya Sabha to State Legislative Assemblies, challenging stereotypes, and shattering the glass ceiling.
Besides parliament, India has had just one woman Prime Minister and two female Presidents since its independence in 1947. So far, only 15 women have served as Chief Ministers.
This article delves into women’s participation in Indian politics, examining their roles, contributions, and the transformative impact of the Women’s Reservation Bill.
The Women’s Reservation Bill: A Catalyst for Empowerment
‘Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam’, the Women’s Reservation Bill, passed in the parliament after 27 years years of making process on 21st September, 2023 is lauded as a watershed moment in Indian politics which proposes a bold step towards achieving gender parity in the political landscape.
The bill’s proponents argue that it is not merely about political representation but a potent instrument to empower women and, in the process, expedite India’s economic growth.
Prominent political leaders have expressed their support for the Women’s Reservation Bill, emphasizing its significance in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment.
The former Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, once stated that the bill “is not just a question of women’s empowerment; it is a matter of ensuring social justice and inclusive development.”
However, the bill has also faced criticism and opposition from some quarters. Critics argue that the bill may lead to tokenism and the selection of women solely based on their family connections. Nevertheless, supporters of the bill contend that it is a significant step towards achieving gender parity and those measures can be taken to address these concerns.
The Women’s Reservation Bill still remains a topic of lively debate and discussion in India, as it represents a powerful tool in promoting women’s involvement in politics and shaping the nation’s future.
The bill also comes at a time when women in India have been more engaged as voters than ever before—accounting for almost half of India’s 950 million registered voters, a number that has increased with every election over the last two decades.
The 73rd Amendment
The 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution, also known as the Panchayati Raj Act, has been a transformative force in promoting gender equality and women’s participation in local governance. This landmark legislation, enacted in 1992, mandates the reservation of seats for women in Panchayati Raj institutions, comprising Gram Panchayats at the village level, Panchayat Samitis at the intermediate level, and Zila Parishads at the district level.
As per the provisions of the 73rd Amendment, one-third of the total seats in these Panchayats are reserved for women. This reservation policy has had a profound impact on grassroots democracy in India, fostering the inclusion of women in decision-making processes at the local level. It provides women with the opportunity to actively participate in shaping policies related to rural development, healthcare, education, sanitation, and more.
Women Panchayats, led by elected female representatives, have brought about significant changes in their respective communities. They have worked towards improving the socio-economic conditions of their villages, ensuring better access to essential services, and addressed issues that disproportionately affect women and marginalized groups. The 73rd Amendment has not only empowered women in rural India but has also been instrumental in advancing social justice and equitable development, in line with the principles of democracy and decentralization.
A Glimpse into Women’s Participation in the Lok Sabha
Historically, women’s participation in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, has been far from representative of their demographic presence. While India’s political landscape has seen a gradual increase in the number of women parliamentarians over the years, the journey has been marked by women who have broken through the glass ceiling, even in the face of daunting odds.
As of March 2022, women constituted around 14.4% of the Lok Sabha.
This figure, though below the international average for parliamentary representation, is an improvement from previous decades. The economic implications of this increased representation are multifaceted. Women MPs have actively championed critical issues like women’s rights, healthcare, education, and rural development, offering unique policy insights that impact economic growth.
Female leaders in Lok Sabha have made significant contributions to Indian politics, ranging from legislative work, policy formulation, and diplomatic relations to advocacy for women’s rights and youth empowerment.
Indira Gandhi was the first woman to hold the office of the Prime Minister of India and served in this role for multiple terms. Her tenure saw major developments in agriculture, nationalization of banks, and the country’s nuclear program.
Meira Kumar, the first woman to hold the position of Speaker in the Lok Sabha, served from 2009 to 2014. She presided over the Lok Sabha during a critical period, including the passage of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. Her role as Speaker showcased the importance of gender diversity in parliamentary leadership.
Lalitha Kumaramangalam served as the Chairperson of the National Commission for Women and was an advocate for women’s rights and gender equality. She played a pivotal role in addressing issues related to violence against women and advocating for their rights.
The Rajya Sabha: A Chamber of Wisdom with Increasing Female Voices
Women parliamentarians in the Rajya Sabha have been actively involved in debates on issues like gender equality, social justice, and economic development. They have showcased their proficiency in lawmaking and have made substantive contributions to the formation of impactful policies.
In the Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house, the representation of women has been comparatively more balanced compared to the Lok Sabha.
As on 12th November, 2021, women constituted 12.24% of the total members in the Rajya Sabha.
This greater presence of women in the upper house plays a crucial role in shaping economic policy and legislation.
In the esteemed Rajya Sabha of India, several prominent women leaders have made remarkable contributions that shaped and transformed the political landscape of India.
Leaders like Brinda Karat, a Communist Party stalwart, have championed women’s rights and social justice, pushing for progressive policies and legislative changes.
Veteran politician and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, has been a powerful advocate for social justice and the rights of marginalized communities.
Additionally, Najma Heptulla, the former Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, played a pivotal role in ensuring that parliamentary sessions ran smoothly, setting an example of poise and efficiency in leadership.
Moreover, leaders like Smriti Irani, who transitioned from the Lok Sabha to the Rajya Sabha, have made their mark by contributing to education, women’s development, and textile industry policies. These women leaders have left an indelible mark, exemplifying the tremendous potential that female leaders bring to the forefront of Indian politics. Their tenacity and dedication continue to inspire and drive the cause of women’s empowerment in the political arena.
Women in State Legislative Assemblies
State Legislative Assemblies across India have played a pivotal role in nurturing women politicians who later made their mark at the national level.
States like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal have consistently had higher women representation in their assemblies, while others have struggled to strike a balance.
The variations in women’s participation at the state level are emblematic of the diverse political landscape in India. Socio-economic, cultural, and political factors shape the entry of women into state politics, and these factors differ from one region to another. While the Women’s Reservation Bill seeks to increase women’s participation across all states, some have independently initiated measures to empower women further.
Prominent women leaders like Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, have been instrumental in shaping the political and economic landscape of their states. She once stated, “When you educate a woman, you educate a family, and by extension, a nation. Empowering women is not just about politics; it’s about economic growth, development, and societal progress.” This sentiment underscores the profound economic impact of women’s empowerment in politics.
Prominent women leaders in various legislative assemblies across India have played pivotal roles in reshaping local and state-level politics while championing the cause of women’s empowerment. In Maharashtra, leaders like Supriya Sule have made substantial contributions by advocating for women’s rights, rural development, and agricultural reforms. In Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa was an iconic figure for her leadership as the former Chief Minister and her focus on women’s welfare and economic development. In Kerala, leaders like K.K. Shailaja have gained national acclaim for their exceptional management during crises, as well as progressive healthcare and education reforms. In Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati has been a trailblazer, working relentlessly for social justice, upliftment of Dalits, and greater political representation for marginalized groups. Bihar’s Rabri Devi and West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee have both held significant roles, contributing to regional development and challenging conventional political norms. These women leaders have demonstrated the transformative potential of women’s participation in politics, breaking gender barriers, and advancing women’s rights, thereby inspiring others to join the path to empowerment.
The Proxy Leadership Conundrum
Proxy leadership, where a woman holds an elected Panchayat position on behalf of her husband, is a widespread practice. While this may seem like an opportunity for women to participate in politics, it often results in these women functioning as mere figureheads, with their husbands making the actual decisions behind the scenes.
Proxy leaders often face numerous challenges. They may lack the necessary skills, knowledge, or confidence to effectively represent their communities, as they are essentially pawns in a larger political game. Their dependence on their husbands for guidance limits their autonomy and voice in critical decisions.
Moreover, these women may experience isolation and intimidation when trying to assert themselves independently. It creates a vicious cycle where women are discouraged from participating actively in politics, as the perceived role for women in Panchayats remains largely symbolic.
This practice is driven by deeply rooted patriarchal values that still persist in many parts of rural India. Women may be discouraged or even prevented from actively participating in politics, leading to their husbands stepping in as ‘caretakers’ of their political roles. This undermines the essence of local democracy, as it reduces the voice of women to a mere extension of male authority.
Challenges and Hurdles: A Long and Winding Road
The journey towards gender equality in Indian politics has not been devoid of challenges and obstacles. Deep-seated patriarchal norms, political resistance, and societal biases continue to hinder the progress of women in the political sphere. Despite their proven capabilities, women often face discrimination and prejudice in various aspects of political life, from electoral campaigns to policy-making.
The Women’s Reservation Bill, despite its noble intent, has been mired in political controversy and has faced repeated delays in implementation. Concerns range from fears of tokenism to worries about the electoral prospects of male candidates. Addressing these issues necessitates a robust public discourse and a collective commitment to rectifying gender disparities in politics.
The Economic Impact of Women’s Participation
The economic impact of women’s participation in politics is profound and multifaceted. When women engage actively in the political sphere, it results in the formulation of more comprehensive, balanced, and inclusive economic policies that benefit society as a whole.
Firstly, women parliamentarians often prioritize critical issues like healthcare, education, family welfare, and social development. By advocating for these matters, they ensure that essential aspects of a nation’s social infrastructure receive due attention. This, in turn, leads to healthier, more educated, and socially stable populations – all of which are foundational for economic growth.
Secondly, women’s participation in politics leads to the diversification of policy perspectives. It ensures that a broader range of voices and experiences are represented in decision-making. This diversity of thought can lead to more comprehensive and balanced policies that promote economic growth while addressing the unique needs of various sections of society.
Lastly, women’s participation in parliamentary committees plays a vital role in shaping economic policies. These committees are responsible for designing and fine-tuning legislation. When women actively engage in these committees, they offer their expertise, ensuring that economic policies consider the distinct requirements of different groups and demographics.
Empowering women in politics not only fosters gender equality, but also fuels economic growth and development, equitable governance.
The Way Forward: Realizing the Promise of the Women’s Reservation Bill
The Women’s Reservation Bill is not just a piece of legislation; it is a testament to India’s commitment to gender equality and the vision of an inclusive and progressive society. The empowerment of women in politics is not a matter of charity but a necessity for a thriving democracy and a thriving economy.
As India progresses into the future, the full realization of the Women’s Reservation Bill is crucial. Achieving this goal requires a multi-pronged approach:
- Electoral Reforms: The bill needs to be implemented in tandem with electoral reforms that address the structural barriers that hinder women’s political careers.
- Political Will: Political parties must recognize the significance of gender diversity in their pool of candidates and actively promote women’s participation. They can achieve this by fielding more women candidates and supporting their campaigns.
- Capacity Building: Ensuring that women are well-equipped for political life is crucial. Training programs, mentorship, and support networks can empower women to navigate the complexities of politics effectively.
- Advocacy and Awareness: A robust public discourse on the economic benefits of gender equality in politics is essential. It can help counter the stereotypes and misconceptions that impede the bill’s progress.
- Civil Society Engagement: Civil society organizations and activists play a pivotal role in holding lawmakers accountable and driving the women’s empowerment agenda.
As women continue to shatter glass ceilings, break barriers, and lead in various fields, the path to equal political representation is equally promising. The Women’s Reservation Bill, through its economic implications, underscores the importance of a gender-equitable political landscape for India’s sustained growth and development.
By empowering women in politics, India empowers itself for a brighter, more prosperous future.
Smriti Saxena is a Research Intern at Tatvita Analysts. She is pursuing her Bachelors in Economics.