2013 was a turning point for women in India as the brutal gang rape of Nirbhaya and the huge protests in the aftermath placed the issue of violence against women at the heart of public discourse in the country.
As we step into 2014, it is crucial to reflect as to why as a society we are still struggling to ensure something as basic as safety for one half of its population. It is indeed a moral crisis that belies the image of a prosperous shining India.
One important reason is that the top echelons of power in the country are male dominated and gender equality and equal representation of women in public life has long been dismissed as a “Women’s issue” thereby trivializing the issues.
Though the Indian Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens, it is a sad state of affairs that half of India’s population has a poor 11% representation in the Parliament.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) ranks India 108th among 188 countries on statistics of women’s representation in the parliament (MPs).
While most political parties in India want to be seen as champion of minority rights, they fail to see 48% of the population as a coveted constituency.
It is true that Indian women participate in government and their numbers have increased over the last several years. And, yes, there are some very visible women, but their visibility creates a false sense of influence and parity.
What still eludes women is the power and opportunity to participate in the public realm by loosening the fetters of tradition that bind them in the private domain. In the course of history, women’s voices have been silenced in the public arena.
They have been silenced thanks to the very definition of Women, that to which they are inescapably linked: their sexuality, their feminity, and their body. These are historically used to situate women in the private realm. Women’s voices have entered the political realm to protest the structural oppression they experience as women because of their association with the private. But alas that entry into the public realm is still in abysmally low numbers.
Barring striking exceptions where dynastic charisma has worked in favor, most women politicians still find it difficult to rise within party hierarchies. Internal party structures hardly favour women; women members are thin if not invisible on the ground and are often relegated to women’s wing without any substantial role in decision making.
During elections, women candidates already few in number are not placed in constituencies considered to be the party’s’ stronghold. Also those in power are invariably given ‘soft portfolios’ which are an extension of women’s stereotypical images.A lack of representation is not just a democratic deficit, but also ignores a pool of talent and a diversity of views that can enrich decision making that affects at least a billion people!
World leaders like Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton and Dilma Rousseff have proved their mettle as leaders capable of changing the political landscape of the country. It was certainly not a cakewalk for them to break the glass ceiling. Yet in spite of all their efforts to play down the role of gender and not to do politics “as a woman”, the media coverage – falls back time and again on stereotypical gender images. Traditional notions of femininity and masculinity become a filter through which the media dishes out the images of these female politicians.
Few would disagree that India is at the cusp of change. With the changing nature of political discourse in the country, it’s imperative for Indian polity to grab this opportune moment in history to enhance the role of women in public life in general and politics in particular. With the largest election exercise on the planet just three months away, it’s important for Indian political parties to not just field their bahu- beti’s (daughters & daughter-in-laws) as candidates but also the aam aurat (common women).
Political parties in India rarely talk about strengthening the role of women in government. Parties that are content only promising women’s security have already missed the bus and ignore the important role that women are playing world over even as ordinary citizens. The women electorate was a major force behind Berlusconi’s defeat in Italy and Obama’s re-election in the U.S. In Arab spring too, young women played an important role in the revolutionary process.
Gender equality in the Indian parliament of 2014, will enable stronger voices at the top, which would have a trickle-down effect, helping women at the grassroots who face a barrage of threats from female foeticide, child marriage, dowry and honour killings to discrimination in health and education.
Research on enhancing female political participation makes it clear that concerted efforts are required to improve the pipeline to power. Creating internal party quotas for women, gender sensitive parliaments and more role models increase female participation in public life. India is already witnessing a silent revolution at the village /panchayat level where the constitution mandates one third of seats to be reserved for women.
Young girls can’t be what they can’t see, an absence of female role models in government, enhances the idea that politics is a “man’s world” and eliminates politics as a possible career choice for young women. The responsibility lies on open minded leaders of both the sexes who must mentor, nurture and create pathways for younger women. It’s high time for more women to sit at the high table and perhaps change its shape! As Hillary Clinton rightly puts it — “When women participate in politics, it ripples out to the entire society…..Women are the world’s most underused resource”
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