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Women’s Reservation Bill

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The 17th Lok Sabha witnessed the highest number of women ever in Parliament, with 78 women members of Parliament elected from all over the country. Women’s representation in the Lok Sabha has increased from 11.3% in 2014 to 14% in 2019, coming across as a positive development. However, the diversity composition within the group of elected women candidates needs further analysis along the lines of caste, class, religion and ethnicity.

Adding to this, these numbers are also significantly lower in India than its neighbouring countries like Nepal (30%), Pakistan (20.2%) and Bangladesh (20.6%). The relatively stronger representation
of women in these countries is due to the implementation of legislated gender-based reservations. This increased representation of women in politics is seen to grab local, national and global attention on issues of violence against women and grow awareness around sexual harassment and mental trauma.

It is about time that we move beyond a general cry for women’s empowerment and try to look outside our assumed sense of homogeneity, with respect to the category of women. In the context of the Women’s Reservation Bill or the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill proposed on 6 May 2008, by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA-I) government —that remains pending till date in Parliament—the proposition to have one-third of all seats reserved for women in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies was a sincere concern, aimed at increasing the representation of women in these male-dominated spaces.

The same bill also seeks to reserve one-third of the total number of seats for women from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. However, reservations for women from Other Backward Classes (OBCs) have not been incorporated within the bill, despite recommendations from the report examining the 1996 Women’s Reservation Bill. The reservation policy is said to be discontinued 15 years after the commencement of the amendment act.

The bill certainly looks quite promising in its attempt to acknowledge the internal complexities within the category of “women,” by recognising their respective deprivation points derived from caste inequalities. Such a bill would ensure that their specific narratives, concerns and modes of oppression, which otherwise receive very little attention, are voiced out in the public sphere. The lack of attention mostly results due to two major reasons. First, that only a section of the privileged, upper-caste and urban-educated women occupy the few spaces available for women. Second, that within the existing framework of general reservations, the privileged among the underprivileged, that is, the men within these socially-deprived groups are able to find more opportunities of education and employment than the women.

It is of little surprise that women’s empowerment and their intersectional forms of oppression often get subsumed within general, tokenistic political discussions. Adding to that, most of the major political parties do not encourage women’s issues to be a central political theme in their campaigns, unless a physically or sexually violent matter, such as rape, or domestic violence, is highlighted in the media. Along with these, it is also important to understand how “women’s issues” are often relegated within the sphere of the private, whereas their socio-economic marginalisation is systematically invisibilised or selectively visibilised within mainstream politics. For instance, women’s empowerment revolves around issues of reproduction and marriage, while their socio-economic conditions of employment, education and health rarely enter politics. Such systematic invisibility diverts our attention from larger structures of oppression such as the state, to more immediate oppressors like the patriarch of the family.

The lack of representation of women in powerful positions in the Lok Sabha or the legislative assemblies hinder the focus required on women’s education and financial independence, that may have helped them to break free from those oppressive familial ties. This is not to trivialise everyday forms of oppression within the family. It is to stress on the idea that not only is the category of women internally heterogeneous, but the antagonisms and challenges that they face in their everyday life are also multiple.

The proposed bill therefore would be an entry point to raise such questions of the politics of intersectional deprivation within the category of women. However, one must also take note of the exclusion of OBC women from the proposition. Although, post Mandal Commission, the specific issues of OBCs have been voiced in different spheres, it certainly does not eradicate the gender hierarchies within the backward classes. Research has also depicted that among the OBCs, the Muslim OBC women are further deprived due to various intersections of oppression inflicted by religious and caste discrimination.

The Bharatiya Janata Pary’s (BJP) manifesto that was released before elections has included the Women’s Reservation Bill on page 32, item 14, promising,

Women’s welfare and development will be accorded high priority at all levels within the government and the BJP is committed to 33% reservation in Parliament and State Assemblies through a constitutional amendment.

However, this promise has remained unfulfilled by several other parties in the past. Ahead of the first Lok Sabha session of 2019, about 270 civil society activists have written to Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, urging him to “draft a proposal or revise the old draft of the Women’s Reservation Bill,” which had lapsed multiple times in the past three decades. With the rising concerns over the decreasing labour force participation rates and the increasing number of cases of violence against women, the country and its women are looking forward to the upcoming Lok Sabha sessions. Despite the deplorable track record of the proposed bill, one could only hope for better representation in various legislative bodies to address these concerns promptly and more effectively.

Pragya Roy

NEW DELHI

 

Updated On : 24th Jun, 2019

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