Indian Decade

Women’s Day

Have India’s women got something to celebrate on the 100th World Women’s Day?

The world is celebrating the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day today. Apart from the purely symbolic felicitation ceremonies, newspaper supplements and TV programming geared to cash in on women power here, India is also hoping to make the day count by enacting historic legislation.

The Women’s Reservation Bill is being tabled in Parliament today, and, if passed, it will reserve 33 percent of all seats in our Parliament and state legislatures for women. The bill was first introduced in September 1996, and has been re-introduced three times since but never passed, mainly due to staunch opposition by some regional political parties who have demanded ‘quotas-within-the-quota’, or special reservations within this for lower caste women.

But, it’s set for a smooth passage today, with both the ruling Congress Party and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party committed to the bill. If the bill passes, India will become one of the few countries in the world to reserve seats for its women at the parliamentary, state and local body elections. It already has in place a reservation of 33 percent for women in local body level elections (panchayat, gram) which is seen as having been extremely successful in broadening representation.

So is this the best gift Indian women could ask for? Well, maybe. Last year’s parliamentary elections saw a record 11 percent of female representation, entering double digits for the first time. But, India still lags behind the world average of 18.4 percent of all parliamentary seats occupied by women.

Of course, the Women’s Reservation Bill will correct that. But, there are worries that the political space given to women will be usurped by a few ‘families’ in politics. And, it does pigeonhole women into a reserved category. More importantly, though, it’s the need to even have the bill that I think we need to feel worst about – isn’t it sad that more than 60 years after India became a republic and constituted equal rights and opportunities for women, we need more legislation to ensure that happens?