Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Sep 15, 2022
Till today, women across the world remain underrepresented in politics. This needs to change.
Pushing gender-inclusive politics As the world celebrates International Democracy Day, the need for greater representation of women not only in institutions and processes of democracy but also in every discourse of democratic politics must be reiterated. Unlike authoritarianism, democracy is essentially perceived as an empowering and ameliorative political project that gives the common citizens the necessary instrument and avenue for ensuring the representation of their identity, interests, choices, views, and demands in the institutions of governance and governmental policies. The urge for commensurate political representation remains the key aspiration for diverse sections of people in modern democracies. It is important to bear in mind that political representation has an extremely functional significance as it can pave the way for an individual’s social, economic, and cultural empowerment, which are indispensable for leading a life of dignity. So, the promise of equal representation that the democratic system seeks to offer is especially crucial for the socio-political empowerment and upliftment of the hitherto marginalised and oppressed sections of society.

Democracy and women empowerment

Women constitute 49.5 percent of the total population of the world, however, they remain the most marginalised sections of people in the world. Primordial yet resilient structures of deeply entrenched discriminatory patriarchal norms engulf almost all structures of social life across the world, albeit in varied forms and proportions. With the advent of a modern outlook and liberal values aimed toward creating a more equal society, the consolidation of women’s rights in socio-economic as well as political spheres has been witnessed. Especially from the 20th century onwards, the issue of women’s empowerment was backed by numerous social movements across many parts of the world at different points of time, notably, the second wave of the ‘women liberation movement’ in the 1960s and 1970s drew serious momentum and brought in widespread reforms towards all-round emancipation of women. The precipitous rise of the constitutionally sanctioned democratic form of government which accorded all its citizens fundamental rights ushered in a sustained movement towards women empowerment. Though the pace and quantum of gradual weakening of the clutches of patriarchal exploitation of women differ from region to region, the steady improvement of the condition and strengthening of agency of women has been palpably visible.

With the advent of a modern outlook and liberal values aimed toward creating a more equal society, the consolidation of women’s rights in socio-economic as well as political spheres has been witnessed.

Setting the global context

Despite varying but multi-pronged global efforts to facilitate greater participation of women in politics and other spheres of public life by various democratic offices and international institutions, the results have been slow and riddled with structural and psychological challenges. Participation of women in politics has remained proportionately low, despite modest improvements in recent decades. According to the data furnished by UN Women, as of September 2021, only 26 women are serving as elected Heads of State and/or Government in 24 countries across the world. According to the latest World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Global Gender Gap Report, in the year 2022, “the global gender gap has been closed by 68.1 percent. At the current rate, it will take 132 years to reach full parity.” Though the global average share of women occupying ministerial positions has doubled between the “period of 2006 and 2022, increasing from 9.9 percent to 16.1 percent” and “the global average share of women in parliament rose from 14.9 percent to 22.9 percent.”, it is grossly disproportionate to the women population across the globe. The WEF report also highlights that despite gradual improvements, the gender gap in the labour market, care work, wealth accumulation and skill learning, and stress levels remains considerably high highlighting the vulnerability that still grapples huge sections of the female population. It has been interestingly highlighted that though women in leadership positions in different industries have increased over time, women are more likely to be hired at leadership positions in industries where they have greater representation. Also, women leaders in politics are likely to induct more women into political and governmental positions. South Asia is one of the geographies that shows lower levels of gender parity across different political and socio-economic parameters underlining deep-rooted and rigid patriarchal structures and conservative traditions that inhibits adequate women empowerment in the region.

Gender equality in Indian democracy

India is the largest and the most vibrant democracy in the region that has accorded equal political and civic rights to both men and women right at the inception of its post-colonial independent existence as a constitutional democracy. Apart from the political right to vote and contest elections laid down in Articles 325 and 326, Part III of the Indian Constitution guarantees the fundamental rights of men and women. In the Directive Principles of State Policy, economic empowerment has been ensured by providing for equal pay for equal work for both men and women and as well as provisions for human conditions of work and maternity relief.  Women’s participation in politics in India has undoubtedly increased with time. In terms of participation in elections as voters, the turnout of women has witnessed an impressive rise over the years and women turned out in almost equal numbers as men in the last national elections in 2019—hailed as ‘women’s silent revolution of self-empowerment. Such increased political participation of women has been attributed to increased literacy levels and greater political awareness largely due to the proliferation of information through digital and electronic media communication.

Women’s participation in politics in India has undoubtedly increased with time. In terms of participation in elections as voters, the turnout of women has witnessed an impressive rise over the years and women turned out in almost equal numbers as men in the last national elections in 2019—hailed as ‘women’s silent revolution of self-empowerment.

However, as far as women’s participation in legislative politics is concerned, data on women’s representation in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha (the lower and upper houses of parliament in India) suggest that though the participation of women voters in elections has increased greatly with time, the proportion of women representatives in the Parliament, both in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, has remained considerably low. The highest number of women representatives in the Lok Sabha so far were elected in the 2019 elections. In the present House, it is just around 14 percent of the total membership. The scenario of women’s representation in the Upper House or the Rajya Sabha has been equally low, and despite relative improvement over the years, has not yet crossed 13 percent of the total membership of the house. The scenario in the state legislative assemblies, also called the Vidhan Sabhas, has been worse where the average percentage of women representatives remains below 10 percent. In a country where the female population constitutes half of its population, only 1014 percent of women representatives in the national and state legislatures reflect deep structural conditions of gender inequality in the domain of legislative representation in India. The Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) and National Election Watch (NEW) in their 2020 study have observed that “less than a tenth of 50,000 candidates contesting central and state elections are women.” The number of women ministers in India also has increased with time but such proportion also remains considerably low in comparison to their male counterparts.

The silver lining

For the local self-government at the third tier, i.e., in panchayats and municipalities, the passage of the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts in 1992 provided for the reservation of one-third of the total number of seats for women in these bodies. Studies have suggested that the policy of reservation of seats for women has led to a phenomenal rise in the political participation of women in the governance institutions at the local level. Taking a cue from the positive results of the reservation of one-third of seats for women, a few states like Odisha have legislated for 50 percent reservation for women in their local bodies. Though there have been initial concerns regarding ‘proxy representation of women’, over time women representatives have become more conscious of their political rights and familiarised themselves with the experiences of governance, making them real agents of political decision-making at the grassroots level in India. The protracted demand for the Women Reservation Bill 2008 which mandates for one-third reservation of seats for parliamentary and state legislative assemblies has been languishing for a long time due to a lack of political consensus on the issue. The lack of institutional push and the inability of political parties to facilitate the rise of a considerable section of women leaders in national and state-level politics remains a pressing concern for gender-inclusive politics in India. Despite the positive changes in local-level politics, without adequate women representation in the higher echelons of politics, systematic inclusion of issues of holistic women empowerment in the policy-making and idiom of governance, is difficult to materialise. However, though women’s participation in state-level and national representative politics has remained relatively low so far due to challenges of institutional inaccessibility and structural impediments, increased political mobilisation of women can create conditions conducive to overcoming such hindrances A more gender-inclusive discourse of political participation in Indian democracy that would ensure descriptive as well as substantive representation of women in institutions of politics and governance is the need of the hour.
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Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Ambar Kumar Ghosh is an Associate Fellow under the Political Reforms and Governance Initiative at ORF Kolkata. His primary areas of research interest include studying ...

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