February 15, the birth anniversary of Susan B Anthony, a 19th century women’s rights activist who championed the women’s suffrage movement, is an apt occasion to ruminate over the Women’s Reservation bill. The bill, also known as the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, 2008, seeks to ensure that 33 per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha as well as in state legislative Assemblies are reserved for women.
Introduced by the UPA government in 2008, it was passed in the Rajya Sabha, but the Lok Sabha hadn’t voted on it and it therefore lapsed after the Congress-led UPA government lost power in 2014. Had it been enacted, seats would have been reserved on a rotation basis with no seat being reserved more than once in three consecutive general elections.
Sadly, there has been no attempt to empower women politically since the bill lapsed. India already has the ignominy of being ranked 148th in terms of representation of women in executive government.
We have a mere 11.8 per cent women in the Lok Sabha as against a global average of about 22.8 per cent women in national legislatures (as of June 2016). These figures only indicate the dismal state of women’s empowerment, especially in roles that involve decision-making.
Numerous studies have indicated that women’s leadership style tends to be more inclusive and risk averse. This augurs well for any society to attain inclusive and sustainable development. For instance, many scholars are of the view that had there been more women in the top echelons of the corporate field, the global financial crisis of 2008 may have been averted.
Giving credence to this view is a report by the UNDP titled, "Corruption, Accountability and Gender: Understanding the Connections", implies that having more women representatives could lead to lesser corruption.
To understand the correlation between gender parity in politics and development, one must look at the Nordic countries. All the Nordic countries are in the top 10 list of women representatives in Parliament, with Sweden accounting for about 44.7 per cent women in their legislature. This is reflected in their national policies known for being inclusive and gender sensitive. Some of their policies and schemes include, mandatory paternity leave, alongside maternity leave, and post-maternity re-entry programmes.
Meanwhile, since 2008, in Norway, it is statutorily mandated that all public listed companies must have at least 40 per cent women on their boards.
Even in India, there is strong evidence to indicate that where women are involved, there is better development. The United Nations Women, in its website cites research which has revealed that women-led panchayats, had 62 per cent higher drinking water projects than in those led by men. The website also states that a causal relationship was observed in the number of women representatives in local bodies in Norway and better child welfare.
It is the prospect of having such provisions in India that should dominate our public discourse and electoral debates. Sadly, our discourse is rife with mudslinging, cheap personal jibes, slander and the like. Rather than debating about the places of worship leaders visit, or the promises of subsidies for pilgrimages, we must be debating about ways to ensure inclusive and sustainable development.
Given such a bleak scenario, it is encouraging that at a recent interaction with people, Rahul Gandhi had reiterated what he has been saying for long - that the Congress party under his leadership will ensure more women are brought into the political system. During the interaction, he cited a recent meeting he held with party leaders from a state where a panel of 15 members that discussed women’s empowerment, ironically, had only one woman representative.
Instead of indulging in the usual meaningless political jibes, it would be in the best interests of the nation if all parties mulled over this, as the situation is unlikely to be much different from what Rahul Gandhi illustrated. Since all parties agree that women’s empowerment is a matter of paramount importance, they should come together and ensure there is gender parity in their parties.
Further, it would be in the best interest of India’s development that all parties put aside their differences and pass the women’s reservation bill. Surely, it cannot be such a difficult thing to do when every party agrees that we need more women in the (legislative) Houses.