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Time to accelerate women’s representation in Parliament: UN Resident Coordinator

Mar 09, 2013

Lise Grande, the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in India, has had a prolific career working across development issues and varied countries. In an exclusive interview with OneWorld South Asia, she says socially constructed realities about women in India need to change and how increased political participation might be a way to push for greater rights for women.

Lise Grande

OneWorld South Asia: UNDP has come up with its new country programme: What is there in it for women?

Lise Grande: The UNDP CCP is a document we do at a time we enter into a new partnership with a country. So, the fact the government has a new 12th Five Year Plan, the UN system too has a new cooperation framework. And as a part of it, the UNDP has a very specific five year programme.

This programme focuses primarily on women and we come at it from every angle, in terms of increasing the economic inclusion of women, political inclusion of women, the social inclusion of women and the legal inclusion of women. And that is in recognition that when you’re looking at helping women, it cannot be done by focussing on one aspect. You got to come at it from every angle, and so our cooperation framework was designed to do that.

OWSA: One of the biggest concerns for India is women in the labour market. And the labour market gets more complex when it comes to the unorganised sector. There are more women in this sector in the form of domestic help, labourers etc. What kind of policy changes do you look at here?

LG: Let’s put the informal sector in context. One of the things that has come out of the new ILO study on the employment trends is that women have decreased in the labour force in the last ten years. We don’t know whether women are moving en masse into the informal sector or homes, we’re just not sure. And it is important for us to understand the changes that are taking place in the labour force, especially in context of women.

There are 94 per cent of women in the informal sector. The problem is it is not regulated. So you don’t have decent work conditions, there is no proper social security, there are problems form lack of financial inclusion. How do you deal with that? Clearly, there needs to be a rights-based approach to decent work. India has the best rights-based legislative framework so having a right to decent work is an obvious step for India. As part of decent work, you’ll have a number of things-mandatory safety nets, employment regulation. It makes sense for India to move in this direction.

Another way to address this is to have women move up in the value chain. One of the things about the informal sector is that women are at the bottom of it. Helping women occupy higher positions so they get better conditions and higher remuneration is also a way to ensure women have a better deal.

OWSA: Political participation for women is low in India. And there is a need for more women in higher positions so that women occupy more decision-making slots.

LG: The interesting irony in India is that it has the largest number of elected women officials in the world. But they re at the local level, the Panchayat level. Under a new Bill, there is the expectation that the same 33 per cent quota will also apply to the Lok Sabha. But the greatest achievement is at the lower level and we know India might not be there at the highest levels. Regionally at the parlimentary level, India is second-last. Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal are higher in the list.

The level of women’s participation is the problem. The emphasis now has to be on accelerating women’s representation at the parliamentary level. It is very difficult for women to get on to party lists, to campaign, to get finances for it. It takes the three Ms to be a leader - money, motivation and mentoring. In terms of what the UN can do, UN Women and UNDP are doing the training at the Panchayat level. The other issues - party selection and tickets - are things that political leaders, women’s groups and those who care about democracy have to do.

OWSA: In your experience, what does it take to accelerate women’s participation?

LG: Interestingly, the country that has the highest number of women in Parliament is Rwanda. More than 50 per cent are in the parliament. So coming out of the genocide, when Rwanda was ripped part in every way, the political leaders at that time decided on more women in the parliament and it took less than a generation to get to that. That commitment that was driven by political determination led to changes in campaign finance, the legal framework. And it took less than a generation.

OWSA: Where do you see things going in India?

LG: It is quite clear that statistically women are behind here. The reasons behind that are profound, complex and historical. They have to do with caste, patriarchy and a whole host of things - the way the national identity was constructed. These are embedded social practices and social structures. Then you have the legal framework, which tries to adjust these practices and also has to enforce these. So what do you do with them? Then there is rapid modernisation. It has been historically seen that during modernisation unless there is a conscious attempt to avoid it, women are almost always in a worse position.

Look at the way many people discuss women in India. They discuss them as objects. This is the reflections the way in which gender was constructed after the colonial period. Women are objects who are bought through dowry and they need to be protected. Since when is that a part of being a woman. It is not! It is a socially constructed reality. And if it is constructed, it can be un-constructed.

So the question for India is, will they decide to be determined about it? Will they decide in this period of remarkable growth, that they will not be like other countries and that that Indian women will be guaranteed equality?

OWSA: How do you expect to change such deeply entrenched social and cultural attitudes towards women?

LS: Look at the way many people discuss women in India. They discuss them as objects and as things to be protected. This is a reflection of the way in which gender was constructed after the colonial period. Women were objects, they were bought through dowry, and they need to be protected. Since when is that an essential part of being a woman. It is not! It is a socially constructed reality. And if it is constructed, it can be un-constructed.

But at the heart of this construction is the objectification of women through dowry. If you buy women in marriage, you pay for a woman, then she is the same thing as a cow and like any any other object that is a part of the household economy. Fundamentally this issue cannot be ignored if India has to progress.
OWSA: In the aftermath of the Delhi rape and murder case, many political leaders made public statements that were regressive. In that sense, do you see the political leadership going the right path for women’s right in India?
LG: I think we have to recognise that India is the second largest country in the world and the future of what happens in the world depends on what happens in India. Given India’s great history, rapid modernisation and complexities, it is not an easy road to walk. I don’t want to underestimate how complex that road is, but the role of the political leadership is obvious.

One thing to think about is, India is going into the election period. So if the election is about women’s question, the status of women in India, then it will be a very interesting election indeed.

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