By Aditi Bhaduri
- India -
On the 15th of August, India celebrated 67 years of independence from British colonial rule. A new wave of optimism seems to have been ushered in with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his opposition Bharatiya Janata’s defeat of the Indian National Congress, which had controlled Indian politics for most of the past sixty years.For women this has heightened symbolism. Women’s empowerment had been high on the list of promises that the new Prime Minister made during his election campaign. In May, Modi announced the most women friendly Cabinet that independent India has seen, although women still comprise less than 30 percent of members. Seven high profile women were made ministers – of them six are of Cabinet rank. The lower house of parliament has also seen the highest number of women ever – sixty one women were elected this year. So what accounts for this change and optimism?
Throughout the last couple of years, the world has been horrified by stories of rape and sexual molestation in India. The growing violence against women has been a critical cause for concern as has the ineffectuality of existing laws which go unimplemented and fail as a deterrent to crime. This, say activists, to some extent, spurred women’s participation in the recent elections.
According to the Election Commission of India, the 2014 elections earned the distinction of the highest voter turnout ever at 66.4 percent. 65.31 percent of the total women voters in the country participated in this election, as compared to 55.82 percent in a 2009 poll.
Neeru Kaul, a scientist in her early 30s, who works in Gurgaon, a satellite township of Delhi, tells me that her physical safety is the first demand she has of any government. This concern trumps all others, especially as her work demands long working hours and she often returns home late. She points out that many of her junior colleagues from smaller towns had to fight a hard battle with their parents to allow them to come to Gurgaon to work. Those who fail lose out on many professional opportunities simply because their physical safety is not guaranteed.
Price rise is another component that needs to be factored in, points out Dr. Ranjana Kumari, who heads the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi based organization working on women’s rights and empowerment. “It is women who usually manage kitchens and the domestic sphere in India and even the least politically engaged is impacted by price rise of commodities.” Increasingly, more women understand that politics affect every aspect of their lives and in order to usher in change, they have to participate in the politics of the country.
The magnitude of women’s engagement and participation with these elections could be gauged from the fact that a number of ‘gender manifestos’ by activists and civil society groups were released during the election season.
The Centre for Social Research released the first manifesto. Dr. Kumari tells me her organization’s manifesto was an attempt to draw the attention of political parties whose promises to women had to a large extent been left unfulfilled. “All manifestos by and large had been engaging in the ‘victim representation’ of women, promising in nebulous terms to ensure their ‘protection’ and ‘security’,” she explains. “We wanted to shift the focus to ‘empowerment and entitlement’, i.e. correct inclusion by promising land rights to the most marginalized sections of women, property rights, employment, health insurance for the elderly and so on.”
Unlike other election seasons in India, TV channels hosted talk shows on what women want and jingles and advertisement campaigns highlighting the power of women filled the air spaces and pages of print media. The political parties also included women’s empowerment in their election manifestos. For some candidates – especially for Mr. Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the candidate from the Indian Congress – ‘women’s empowerment’ became a buzzword for their campaigns.Nevertheless, when it came to electing women candidates, Indian political parties fell back on familiar patterns. According to statistics released by the Association for Democratic Reforms, an election monitoring watchdog, the 632 women who ran, formed a mere 12 percent of the total number of candidates that contested. “This reflects a mindset that is opposed to women’s representation and participation in decision making,” says Shoma Chatterjee, film critic and author of many books on gender.
Sixty one women MPs amongst 543 still makes for a pretty low representation – amounting to only 11 percent.
“The antidote is to have more women in decision making, more women in Parliament,” says Archana Jatkar, the sarpanch or elected head of the Pokhari tal Pusad block council in the state of Maharastrhra.
For this reason, numerous activists and civil society organizations, as well as women’s wings of different political parties, are campaigning for the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in parliament. The bill, introduced in 1996, would ensure 33 percent of parliamentary seats for women.
So would the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill ‘clean up’ politics and democratize Indian society? Jatkar feels that it will. She cites her own grassroots experience where constitutional amendments have ensured that 33 percent of all local council bodies are reserved for women. This has brought about palpable change at the grass roots.
Reservations are of paramount importance if change is to be seen, she tells me. “There are issues only women understand.” For instance, in her district, protection officers that are mandated by the Domestic Violence Act have yet to be appointed. “This is of utmost urgency for women, who are the ones who are usually at the receiving end in various acts of domestic violence. Men are not really concerned about this lacuna,’” she points out. “Women in public office has emboldened other women to come ahead, its symbolism is empowering for many others.” Hence, she is convinced that numbers are important.
The current cabinet thus gives cause for hope. Not only are there more women this time around but they are also achievers in their own rights. Najma Heptualla, for instance, is a seasoned politician. Maneka Gandhi is a long time dedicated animal rights activist. Smriti Irani – the youngest minister at 38 years of age – is an acclaimed TV star who has proved her mettle as her party’s spokesperson over the last couple of years. Sushma Swaraj, also a long time politician, is an ex-Chief Minister of Delhi. This for those like Manjira Majumdar, who teaches media studies at a Kolkata college, is a welcome change from the other women who have hitherto been present in Parliament – usually those who entered politics through their family connections.
I believe their collective effort can and will pay off. When Narendra Modi recently vacated his post as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, he was succeeded by a woman, Anandiben Patel. Soon after taking office, she announced a 33 percent reservation in the state’s police force. “The presence of women in the police will go a long way to ensure better implementation of laws for public safety and security,’ says Shoma Chatterjee.
The litmus test, however, will be the passage of 33 percent reservations for women in the lower house, says Archana Jaktar. She and others like Dr. Kumari are hopeful that the current parliament can pass the Women’s Reservation Bill. “The BJP has been inclined towards it and with an absolute majority it has the numbers in the lower house to pass it,” Dr.Kumari tells me.
For many of India’s women this would be a fitting gift in this 67th year of independence.
Aditi Bhaduri is an award-winning independent journalist and researcher, who writes for both the Indian and international media. She also acts as a consultant to various organizations on issues of foreign policy, conflict resolution, and gender.