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Political empowerment must for gender equality in India

Jun 15, 2009

The Women’s Reservation Bill holds immense potential for transforming Indian politics and correcting an unjust and unrepresentative system, notes Devaki Jain, a development economist. Taking cue from the success of women’s quota at the grassroots, she defends the Bill for paving the way for meaningful empowerment.

This is an unbelievably strong Bill and certainly, whoever has drafted it is a warrior who is not letting any part of India’s panoply of governance bodies off the hook. Nor does the architect of the Bill have any doubt that such an intrusion into traditional male bastions of governance will not only bring benefits to women but also transform governance and politics.

The quota in Parliament is the least of the patakas. From ensuring that either the president or vice president is a woman, and that 40% of ministerial berths both at the Centre and at the states is set aside for women, it proposes that one of the three election commissioners be a woman, and that the token woman in the Planning Commission should at least have a sister there with her.

It goes on to the UPSC jobs and autonomous boards, all of which are to have at least 40% women, apart, of course, from the crucial demand for not less than 40% seats in the Rajya Sabha, Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies.

There are several haunting questions: does the politics of presence get translated into the politics of representation?

Would it lead to the exclusion of women from the castes and classes that have always been disenfranchised?

Would such an inclusion change gender relations and bring to women the kind of power that would mute the subordinations and inequalities that they suffer across classes? Would it bring power to the voices who are struggling to put a stop to sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, child marriage, honour killings, domestic violence or dowry deaths?

Would it change the purpose of policy, make it more inclusive not only of women but also the excluded, as women have endured exclusion for centuries?

Inversion of hierarchies

The framework of the Bill and rules for reservation and for improving the quality of representation can be tested on the touchstone of women’s experiences, especially in those states where the second elections to local government have taken place. Women in Karnataka, who have already been through three full terms through elections are perhaps the best equipped to reveal both the values as well as the flaws in the system.

In certain districts in Karnataka, more than 40% of the women who have emerged into elected positions, taking block, zila and district together, are not only young — between 20 and 40 years — but include strong ratios of SC/ST or OBC women among the elected in all three tiers, with some even becoming the presidents of zila parishads

Many women would emerge from the less privileged classes and castes

Quite a few are minorities. This outcome has surprised many, especially sceptics. Analysis seems to suggest that this follows a trend in India where SCs, STs and OBCs are emerging into the political leadership. There is an overall inversion of hierarchies that is taking place due to the various special provisions in the Constitution. This wave will also ensure that many women would emerge from the less privileged classes and castes, as we see in the processes and political will that enabled the election of an eminent dalit woman to the Speaker’s chair.

A new phenomenon that is emerging from the political parties is that they have become family enterprises. So whether it is a man or a woman, fiefdom will continue. Hence, the politics which is driven by caste, class and family fief may benefit rather than lose out from this Bill, as it recruits new entrants and vote banks.

While it is often assumed that women in politics are basically proponents for women — and certainly that can be a virtue if it so happens or comes naturally — they need not and should not be pinioned into gender identity politics. They may be involved in campaigns which go beyond gender issues and stake their claim to ideological politics which then gives them another kind of power to wield as women.

Power speaks

Studies, forums and the outcome of interactions with elected women across India reveal that in spite of embedded patriarchy, in spite of the ossified nature of the systems within hard core politics and patronage, in spite of roadblocks put before the women — by their families, by civil servants, by parliamentarians, by legislators, by academics and by the NGOs — elected women politicians are not only speaking out, but speaking out about power.

They identified enjoying the ability to give, to allocate funds for schemes for their areas; and the recognition of being an individual at that space

In a Karnataka survey, nearly 1,000 women who were holding posts in the gram sabhas, embedded as they were in patriarchal homes and endless work, came out with a list of gains that they had experienced the – knowledge of new domains. They identified enjoying the ability to give, to allocate funds for schemes for their areas; and the recognition of being an individual at that space, even if they did not feel that they were representing women everywhere as the best experience.

The public domain, of course, had “‘corrupted them’ into ambitions common amongst those who have power”. Many confessed to finding it beneficial towards improving their economic status, and most had sent their children to college.

The women’s quota in Panchayati Raj Institution (PRI) reminds us of a central truth: power is not something people give away. It has to be negotiated, and sometimes wrested away from the powerful. Enshrining political change within the law has forced both the pace and direction of such change. Democratic politics is, in reality, the interplay of vested interests and the PRIs’ great achievement has been to mandate a vested and mutual interest, between women and the political process.

The lesson of PRIs is clear: if the wisdom of grassroots organisations and especially the courage and clarity of women is to become policy, it will not be through the art of intellectual persuasion but by the arrangements made within the political system for their voice to have power. Bringing women into power is therefore, not only a matter of equity and fairness, but a matter of correcting an unjust and unrepresentative system.

Many believe that the removal of poverty and the achievement of full employment and social integration cannot be effectively addressed without the democratisation of the representative process.

Political restructuring is key to economic growth with justice. The inclusion of this social category especially in the way it has been drafted in the bill — making the woman identity a matter to deal with across the board — would definitely ensure that the atrocities listed above cannot have smooth passage.

However, there is a role here for the Indian women’s movement, to strengthen the attention of the women put in place by the Bill, to women especially amongst the deprived — as they are the last, the daridranarayanis of India. We are challenged.

Source : Tehelka
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