The 'Womanifesto' On the 6th of March, various NGOs working for women's rights came together in New Delhi to present a 'Womanifesto' or a women's manifesto. There were several demands which were included in the document. These included the demand for free sanitary napkins, free treatment for survivors of sexual assault and acid attack, declaration of marital rape as a criminal offence and land deeds to be held jointly by the husband and the wife.
Apart from this, they also demanded that political parties give 33% of tickets to women candidates. They criticised the current central government for failing to get the Women's Reservation Bill passed despite having a majority in the Lok Sabha. In reality, they were questioning the prevalent environment in which one half of the population is still not able to adequately influence the decision-making process. As of now, there are only 64 women MPs (only about 12%) in the lower house of parliament. This points towards a dismal situation where the voice of women is not heard in the corridors of power. On an even more dismal note, the percentage of women MLAs is only 9%, on average.
Misleading statistics Some might say that the situation has improved over the years in a substantial manner. After all, in the first Lok Sabha, there were only 22 women MPs. Compared to that, the present number of 64 might look like a handsome one. It might also be argued that the number of women MPs has steadily increased over the years, except for the dips seen in 1977, 1989 and 2004.
However, numbers can be quite deceptive. The overall scenario is still a reflection of a lack of enough women in positions of power. Although there are a handful of extremely powerful women, including Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, the big picture is still unfavourable for women.
Reservation and related issues In this situation, an argument that has been constantly reiterated is that of reservation of parliamentary seats for women. The Women's Reservation Bill, which is known in official terms as the 'Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill' was passed by the Rajya Sabha almost a decade ago, but it has not been passed by the Lok Sabha as of yet. The bill seeks to reserve 33% of seats in the lower house of parliament for women. This reservation of seats was to continue for 15 years from the passing of the act. These seats will also be proportionately reserved from the seats reserved for the SCs and the STs for women of these communities (in other words, a quota within a quota).
According to its proponents, the bill can be extremely helpful in tackling issues of gender inequality in politics. They present the case of panchayats, where reservation of seats for women has led to a marked improvement of the status of women, at least in most areas, if not all.
However, the bill lapsed before it could be passed by the Lok Sabha. Various critics of the bill have also emerged. According to some, the bill does not provide any provisions for backward castes. Some sections have argued that the bill would only end up perpetuating inequalities as women would not be selected on the basis of their merit as legislators. Others feel that the choice of voters would be restricted as they would only be able to choose from amongst the women candidates. They feel that multi-member constituencies can be given alongside the reserved constituencies. Whatever it might be, there can be no doubt about the fact that women have grown more politically aware over the last seven decades and the Women's Reservation Bill would only be a push in the right direction.
'Vote banks' and women It might also be helpful to remember that the demands which were articulated on Wednesday by the women rights' NGOs had been articulated before the last general election as well. Even on that occasion, appeals were made to political parties to give greater representation to women in politics. Nothing has happened in this direction so far at least from the side of the political parties in the last five years. Although the 'Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao' scheme can be argued to be helpful from the perspective of women empowerment, it doesn't do much to increase the political representation of women.
It is almost a proven fact that elected governments in India have worked for the empowerment of a group only when that group has the potential to turn into a 'vote bank'. Due to obvious reasons, women do not fulfil that criterion. Therefore there is very less possibility that anything concrete would be achieved in this direction in the near future. Perhaps a new generation of politicians, free from the evils which generally plague today's politicians and with a genuine willingness to work for women's welfare can fulfil these demands. Or maybe, women, with greater education and greater social empowerment would actively achieve the seemingly unachievable, without the need for a reservation bill.