Gender inequality leading to deprivation of power among women continues to be a political reality in India today. Women are perpetually excluded from decision-making at every step of the ladder, starting from the household to the top layer of policy making. Although the Constitution of India attempts to remove gender inequalities by interdicting discrimination based on sex and class, and enshrining fundamental rights for all citizens, women still have only de jure rather than de facto access to these rights.
There is no denying the fact that greater participation of women in the political process would be a pre-condition for their economic and social emancipation. However, even though a significantly large number of women vote in the country, yet only a few of them assume the reins of power. Paradoxically, though women have held the posts of President and Prime Minister as well as Chief Ministers of various states in India, the country ranks 20th from the bottom in terms of representation of women in Parliament, as per the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2012.
To remedy the low participation of women electors, India in 1994 established quotas (reservations) vide the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments to reserve 33 per cent of the seats in local governments for women. The Women’s Reservation Bill (108th amendment) has also been introduced in the national Parliament to reserve 33 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats for women, but the bill is yet to be passed. It is believed that though increasing the number of women in national government may not guarantee an impact on governance, a critical mass of women in power can bring about transformation in leadership.
A heartening outcome of the reservation bill is the subsequent rise in political participation by women, which went up from 4-5 per cent to 25-40 per cent among women, and gave millions of women the opportunity to serve as leaders in local government. A few states like Odisha established reservations even before the 73rd amendment and they had 28,069 women elected in 1992 and 28,595 women in 1997.
The robust health of India’s democracy is also reflected in the increasingly large turnouts of women voters in progressive elections at both the national and state levels in the country. In the 2012 elections to Legislative Assemblies, for instance, Uttar Pradesh reported a turnout of 58.82 to 60.29 per cent of the female voters. The states of Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Kerala, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Mizoram, and the Union Territories of Daman and Diu, and Puducherry also reported higher turnouts among women than men in the 2013 Vidhan Sabha elections (Election Commission, 2013). The turnout of women during India’s 2014 parliamentary general elections was 65.63 per cent, only marginally less than the male turnout of 67.09 per cent. In 16 out of 29 states of India, more women voted than men. This increased female participation was observed in both the rich and poor states in the country.
However, this enthusiastic participation in elections does not ostensibly translate into proportionate electoral power for women. In contrast to the encouraging figures pertaining to women voters, the statistics on women’s participation in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies, on the other hand, present a grim picture. The recent Assembly elections in four states and one Union Territory bear witness to this fact more resoundingly than even in the past. Despite the remarkable showing by the two women Chief Ministers in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu in these elections, Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalitha, respectively, there was no significant rise in the number of women MLAs in any of the five Assemblies, which now have a female strength of merely 81 out of the total number of 823 MLAs, representing less than 10 per cent of the total legislators. This includes 8 women out of 126 MLAs in Assam, 21 out of 234 in Tamil Nadu, 40 out of 293 in West Bengal, 8 out of 140 in Kerala, and 4 out of 30 in Puducherry.
The figures at the national level are equally dismal. Table 1 depicts an overview of participation of women in the Lok Sabha (lower house) and in the Rajya Sabha (upper house). The participation of women in the Lok Sabha has, in fact, never exceeded 12 per cent since Independence. The proportion of women Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha has increased by only 6 percentage points over the past six decades. In the Rajya Sabha, it has been almost constant at 7 percent of the total seats, with the exception of the 1991 election where it rose to 15.5 per cent. In the 2009 election, only 59 women MPs were elected for a total of 543 seats, and this figure went up by merely 2 to touch 61 in the 2014 elections.Comparisons at the international level reiterate the abysmally low levels of women’s participation in political decision-making in India (see Table 2). Rwanda, which exhibits the highest participation by women in the latest elections to its lower house, was the first nation to cross the halfway mark for women in Parliament, 7 percentage points ahead of Cuba, which occupies the second position. Alarmingly, women’s representation in Parliament in India is lower than even that of much smaller nations like Nepal and Afghanistan.
Paradoxically, political representation does not have any direct correlation with literacy or other related parameters. This is indicated by a comparison of female political participation in Kerala and Rajasthan, which lie at two opposite ends of the literacy bandwagon, with the female literacy rates being 92 per cent and 53 per cent in Kerala and Rajasthan, respectively, as per the 2011 Census. Although the women in Kerala enjoy greater freedom of movement along with cultural and educational advantages, this has not been converted into political participation. Even the proportion of women in the state assembly is only marginally higher at 11 percent in the present Assembly in Kerala as compared to 7 per cent in Rajasthan.
One of the key challenges faced by women is lack of education which hinders their political involvement. We recommend bridging this gap by providing quality education to women in the country. Awareness about their rights and privileges as mentioned in the Constitution can only be ensured once women are appropriately educated. The issue of gender-based violence and provision of safety and security of women should also be addressed on a priority basis to promote gender equality in the social and political arenas. Although the Government of India has initiated the National Mission of Empowerment of Women in 2014 with the broad objective of gender empowerment, the progress of this project is not up to the mark. It is thus imperative to strengthen its functioning and implementation. In addition, there is need for capacity building of prospective women leaders by imparting leadership training to the female members of political parties.