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September 28, 2023 02:12 am | Updated 02:12 am IST
Last week, Parliament passed the women’s reservation Bill, which provides one-third reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies. Data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union show that the share of women in Parliament in India is around 15%. India ranks 141 out of 193 countries on this count. Even Pakistan, South Africa, and Kenya have a higher share of women representatives. Over the last 27 years, there have been several efforts to introduce the women’s reservation Bill in Parliament. Such efforts faced opposition from different quarters. That there is a strong moral imperative to increase women’s representation is beyond debate. The smooth passage of this law shows consensus around this issue.
Reservation for women in elections to the local bodies in India has resulted in increasing their participation in governance. Research by Tanya Jakimow of the University of New South Wales and Niraja Gopal Jayal shows that, contrary, to popular belief, elected women representatives have over time asserted their presence in spite of interference from male family members. A similar outcome may also be seen in higher elected bodies.
However, implementation of the present law is contingent on the conduct of the next Census and the subsequent delimitation exercise. Census and delimitation are not purely administrative eventualities. There has been a freeze on delimitation since 1976 in order to provide a level-playing field for States to contain population growth. The southern States have been more successful in reducing population growth through a series of measures focused around women empowerment. It is now well understood that higher education among girls, increased female labour force participation, and greater financial autonomy among women directly correlate with lower fertility rates. Ironically, States which have improved indicators around women empowerment would now stand to lose seats to Parliament if a delimitation exercise is held.
Another central issue revolves around the legality of the contingency clause itself. Whether a law, let alone a constitutional amendment, can be contingent upon a uncertain future event requires determination by the constitutional courts. It is strange that a much-needed and near-unanimous legislative reform is now inextricably tied to another future law which may not be dealt with until after the next general elections to the Lok Sabha.
In spite of the law, and its laudable intent, the ultimate game changer lies in changing societal approach to gender roles. Representation of women to elected bodies must necessarily be seen in the larger context of female labour force participation in India, which is abysmal by any standards. Real and substantive gender justice will only be achieved when there is an equitable and fair sharing of household chores and domestic responsibilities, which are all aspects of unpaid labour.
Recent research from the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation’s Time Use Survey (2019) shows that for 97 minutes spent daily by men on unpaid domestic services for household members, women spend 299 minutes. Women spend 134 minutes on average daily on unpaid care-giving services for household members as compared to the 76 minutes spent by men. It is clear that women bear a disproportionate burden of household responsibilities. This is a result of a patriarchal societal mindset, which will need to change if women are to fully and effectively participate in the labour force, let alone hold the highest elected representative positions. In this context, government programmes which recognise unpaid labour done by women within households, such as the Magalir Urimai Thogai in Tamil Nadu, are designed to recognise and address the vast gulf in unpaid household labour.
The Urimai Thogai scheme is a monthly cash transfer programme. It is devised not as a largesse but as an obligation to women who carry a disproportionate burden in the household. While Tamil Nadu has already a greater number of women in the active labour force in comparison with the rest of the country, this scheme ,along with free bus passes for women, is expected to drive numbers up over the next two decades.
Nevertheless, when the proportion of women in higher elected bodies increases in accordance with the present law, questions still remain with regard to building capacity for first-time representatives. Initiatives in other countries offer an interesting case study on sustaining women in the political arena. EMILYs List in the U.S. has been providing campaign guidance, mentorship and building capacity for women as they enter politics. Active for nearly four decades, EMILYs List has helped elect 201 members of Congress (equivalent to the House of the People) and 20 Governors (similar to Chief Minister).
Regardless of whether political parties actively groom women leaders, it is now the duty of the governments to build capacity and ensure that the reservation model leads to successful outcomes. The role of the National Commission for Women and the Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women need to be significantly revised to ensure that the women reservation law does not stay a symbolic gesture. Similarly, the recognition of unpaid labour and equitable sharing of household duties will ultimately dictate whether substantive reform in gender equality is achieved.
Manuraj Shunmugasundaram is DMK spokesperson and Advocate, Madras High Court
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