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Women missing in India's corridors of power

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 8 Mar 2011 13:52 GMT
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NEW DELHI (TrustLaw) – In a country where female deities are worshipped, in a culture where women are revered as mothers and wives, and in a political system where four of the key positions are held by females, many women still have little say over their lives in India.

On International Women’s Day, women across India are taking part in numerous events to highlight the various challenges they face in a rapidly modernising country, which is tightly bound by traditional patriarchal views.

Protests over domestic violence and rising sexual assault, rallies to demand equal land ownership, seminars on the deliberate abortion of unborn girls and discussions on the murdering of women over dowry demands are just some of the events taking place this week.

Some gender rights activists argue that while there are a plethora of issues related to women that need to be addressed, one of the most important is to ensure that women have an adequate say in the national and state parliaments.

Gender equality in parliament, they say, will result in the empowerment of women as a whole. Increased political voice at the top will have a trickle-down effect, helping women at the grassroots level to fight abuse, discrimination and inequality.

While India is the world’s largest democracy, only 10 percent of seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house) and Rajya Sabha (upper house) of parliament - are occupied by women.

As result, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) says India ranks 98th in the world in terms of women’s representation in the national legislatures, ranking below less developed countries like Nepal and Pakistan.

Despite 16 years of protests, rallies, demonstrations and hunger strikes, activists say male legislators have blatantly blocked a bill aimed at giving women more voice.

“It’s farcical. The bill creates chaos when it comes before the house. The men tear the bill up, the speaker of the house tries to restore order amidst the uproar and marshals have to be called in,” says one gender rights activist.

The Women’s Reservation Bill - if passed by parliament - will reserve one-third of seats at national and state assemblies for women.

It’s an idea which many men in parliament find frightening as it would mean they would have to give up their seats to women, say activists.

Some of the most powerful figures in India's political history are women, such as former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, who is head of the ruling Congress-led coalition, yet there is a distinct lack of women in the political arena.

Those against the bill say women already have an adequate voice - pointing not only to Gandhi, but also to Pratibha Patil, India’s president, Meira Kumari, speaker of the house and Sushma Swaraj, leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

But activists say women in India are still largely considered second-class citizens incapable of making decisions.

Last year, the bill was passed by legislators in the Rajya Sabha, but when it came before the lower house, there was uproar. Supporters are hopeful the bill will be tabled again in the coming months.

But they face stiff resistance from some prominent right-wing MPs in the north of the country which tends to be more patriarchal. Opponents include Lalu Prasad Yadav, a former railways minister, and Mulayam Singh Yadav, former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state.

The bill is also unpopular with certain minorities who are guaranteed a quota of seats in parliament. Some Muslims, tribal communities and lower caste groups fear more seats for women will mean fewer for them.

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