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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Women’s Reservation Bill: Will It Empower Them?

Ever since its first appearance in 1996, the women’s reservation bill—proposed legislation to reserve 33.3% seats in the Parliament and state legislatures for women—has become a cause for heated debate, both in and outside the Parliament. 
The proponents of the bill argue that historically, women in India have been marginalized and unless they are given ample scope to actively participate in the political process of the nation, they cannot come out of their current state of deprivation. It is their strong belief that the reservation bill would not only result in gender equality in the Parliament, but also empower women to fight against the atrocities inflicted on them by the society. 


As usual, some parties opposed the bill fearing that the proposed reservation of 33.3% seats for women, along with the already existing 22.5% of reservation for scheduled castes andtribes, would severely constrain the opportunity of male leaders to participate in the elections.

The MPs from the socially and economically backward classes argued that such reservation would only aid the women leaders from elitist classes to get elected, which, according tothem, is sure to result in under-representation of the poor and backward classes, widening the discrimination further. 

The net result is: when the bill was moved for consideration in the Rajya Sabha, unprecedented scenes of pandemonium were enacted. Some honorable members had torn the bill and thrown the pieces at the Chair, some had rushed to the Chair raising slogans against the bill, while yet others had tried to uproot the mike on the table of the Chairman. The Chair was subjected to a near assault by the opposing MPs, whereupon they were suspended for the rest of the session. And, all this— ‘shame on the nation’, as the national press described it—happened as the nation watched aghast the live proceedings on the TV channels. The Lok Sabha was no exception to these scenes. 

Amidst the bedlam, the Rajya Sabha has, however, passed the bill. It has been described as a “historic step, a giant step” for womankind. But in the din of it all, a very fundamental question has missed the nation’s attention: Will mere reservation of seats in the Parliament and state legislatures really empower women? Interestingly, we once had one of the strongest women as our Prime Minister for more than a decade, yet history does not testify that it had in any way improved the lot of women. A specified number of seats for women in the Parliament or legislature may not automatically mean that the interests of women will be taken care of. 

Even in today’s India, which is often described as a ‘world player’, women, bereft of a voice, remain invisible even to their modern compatriots working in corporate offices. They are, in practice, even denied many of the rights granted by the constitution. They have no say even in matters of family decisions, nor have they come out of the hold of the traditional mores having negative connotation; else no woman would have agreed to abort an unborn girl child based on mere ultrasound scan. 

Which is why one tends to wonder if the reservation bill will in any way alter the plight of Indian women. For, empowerment is not something given; it is something that has to come from within. It is only then that ‘empowerment’ becomes functional: a woman can say no to what she does not agree to. On the other hand, a ‘given’ empowerment remains a mere ornament for exhibition. To better appreciate this argument, let us look at the hooliganism exhibited by the MPs in the Parliament: Which law empowered them? Indeed, every law of the land prohibits it. Yet, they did it. Which means, law or no law, it is the individual’s sensitivity or no-sensitivity to a ‘given’ that determines the behavior. 

More importantly, no one can deny the role of ‘dynasty’ in Indian politics. Similarly, money plays a great role in Indian elections— a recent National Election Study revealed that 68% of existing women MPs are crorepatis, as against 57% of male MPs. This being the reality, no wonder if, after passing of the bill, today’s male leaders, of course, irrespective of their party affiliations, put up their women relatives from these reserved constituencies, which means there would be little or no scope for women from subaltern strata to step into the Parliament. That aside, as the constituencies keep changing from election to election, no elected representative finds any incentive to work for the good of the constituency— leave aside the question of addressing the problems of women. 

All this, indeed, calls for far-reaching changes in the areas of economic, social, and legal policies. Gaps between men and women, in terms of health, adult literacy, and economic participation must be bridged. Women must have the same inheritance rights as that of men, so that possession of assets in their hand would enable them to voice their views with confidence both within and outside the home. Such financial independence alone would empower them to fight against the ongoing ‘killing, aborting, and neglecting of girls’. It would embolden them to insist on good education, nutrition and health for their daughters. 

There is yet another reason why the nation should think beyond the reservation bill: the latest Asia Pacific Human Development Report estimates that increasing the proportion of women in the workforce to 70%, equivalent to the rate of many developed countries, would boost the annual GDP in India by 4.2%. It is in the interests of the national economy too that India needs to do more—more than merely passing a reservation bill. 

Or, is the reservation bill the easiest solution that the nation can offer, to gloss over the centuries-old deprivation of Indian women?

- GRK Murty


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