Reservation for women. What can we expect from bahus and betis?

The issue of Reservation for women in Indian Parliament and State legislatures is heating up the already hot summer in this country. Opinions are divided and keenly debated. Let us examine the issue from all viewpoints and try to come to a conclusion on the merits and de-merits of the bill.

What the Women’s reservation bill envisages?

 The bill proposes to reserve for women 33% of seats in Lok Sabha and State Assemblies for next 15 years from the day it becomes the law. The constituencies are to be decided by lot and will change in each elections there by ensuring that by end of 15 years all constituencies in India will have had a women member representing it.

For the Bill
Those who support the bill says that while the Indian constitution, one of the most progressive in the world guarantees equal rights for men and women, in reality the gender based discrimination is still a major issue. Bias against women and girls is reflected in the demographic ratio of 933 females for every 1,000 males. 1 in 5 of Indian women die during childbirth, and that account for more than 20 percent of the global maternal deaths. As far as political participation of women is concerned, the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 was the only time when women candidates witnessed a 10 percent participation in Parliament
. Women. need reservation in Parliament and state legislatures because society is “paternalistic” and it is difficult for them to contest and win elections against the “established and entrenched male chauvinistic order in the society”. Participation of more number of women in active politics will help break the gender stereotype and help in enactment of more gender sensitive legislations. They claim that legislatures will become less corrupt and less number of criminals will be elected.

Against the Bill [from Manushi online petition]
The Bill provides for reservation on rotation basis through a lottery system, which means that two-thirds of the incumbent members will be forcibly unseated in every general election and the remaining will remain in a limbo till the last moment. Such compulsory unseating violates the basic principal of democratic representation and jeopardises the possibility of effective planning to contest by nurturing a political constituency for both male and female candidates. As legislators will be denied the possibility of seeking re election from the same constituency, politics will become even less accountable than at present. Since a seat will be reserved once in 15 years, males who will be pushed out of their constituency are likely to field their own female relatives as proxy candidates as a stopgap arrangement and women will not get the chance to cultivate deep roots in their constituency. Women will be ghettoised and forced to fight elections only against other women. They will lack the legitimacy of being mainstream politicians.

 Alternative Proposal [Manushi, CSDS, Loksatta]
  A law should be enacted amending The Representation of the People Act, 1951, to make it mandatory for every recognized political party to nominate women candidates for election in at least one-third of the constituencies. In the event of any recognized party failing to nominate one-third women candidates, 2 male candidates will lose the Party symbol. This Bill has the following advantages: Firstly, parties will be free to field women candidates where they can offer a good fight rather than in pre-fixed lottery based constituencies, where they may or may not have viable women candidates. Thus there is flexibility and promotion of natural leadership. A woman candidate will be contesting both against female and/or male candidates of rival parties. The democratic choice of voters is not restricted to compulsorily electing only women candidates.

Unlike with the lottery system of reserved constituencies, in which women’s presence is likely to get ossified at 33 percent since there would be resistance to letting women contest from non-reserved constituencies, this model allows for far greater flexibility in the number and proportion of women being elected to legislatures. If women are candidates for one-third of all seats contested by each party, theoretically they could even win the vast majority of seats – all on merit.

My Take
I support the Women’s reservation Bill, as I believe it is a measure in right direction that can reduce the gender disparity in India especially in the political arena.
Let me examine the points made out against the Bill.
 It is undemocratic because a person cannot contest a particular seat because of his gender.
In 90% of seats women were kept out because of traditional/cultural reservation for men. Was that democratic? Here this reservation is an affirmative action, forcing political parties to be more gender sensitive and there by reducing the disparity. In legislatures. If this measure is not implemented now, it may take at least another 50 to 100 years for us to see 33% seats filled by women.

 Effective nurturing of constituencies by MPs will not take place, as they will not be sure of re-contesting.
Here it is implied that women who get elected in reserved constituency will not be fielded again as the constituency become un-reserved.
Let us see if there is any data to prove or disprove this point from the experience from Local Body elections.
 In a paper published in American Political Science Review [Feb 2009] analysing Mumbai Municipal Corporation elections of 1997 and 2002, Rikhil Bhavnani says that    
“the probability of a woman winning office conditional on the constituency being reserved for women in the previous election is approximately five times the probability of a woman winning office if the constituency had not been reserved for women The data suggest that reservations work in part by introducing into politics women who are able to win elections after reservations are withdrawn and by allowing parties to learn that women can win elections.” 
In other words chance of women getting her seat even in unreserved quota is high and also her chance of winning again is also much better..  In 1997 in open constituencies only 3.4% women won while in 2002 it more than doubled to 8.6%.
This proves that many women will be given tickets again and many will win in open constituencies.
There will some dislocations but that is worthwhile if we can get a pool of women active in politics.

Women elected will be proxies[bahu-beti] useful only for keeping the seats warm for male members of the family.
I feel there is an implied sexism in this viewpoint. Unfortunately powerful families controlling politics of an area is very common in India. Members of such powerful families, both males and females are active in politics. Some are efficient while others are not so good regardless of the gender. How can one conclude that women members of such families will be useless and inefficient  proxies while males will have an effective voice of their own?
Let us take the so-called ‘first’ family of India. Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter was in all counts much more efficient and powerful than his grand sons. Even the ‘foreign’ granddaughter in law seems to be much better than the ‘Indian’ grand sons.

Radu ban and Vijayendra Rao in a study of 523 village Panchayaths say that
We show that women elected in reserved constituencies are not tokens. They are as likely to be persuaded to contest by political elites as unreserved presidents. They are from the upper end of the distribution of women and tend to be more knowledgeable about political activities, more politically experienced, and wealthier than the average woman.

So such an argument has no basis.

Alternative proposal to make it compulsory for political parties to  reserve  for women 33% in their  list of candidates…..

This makes it easy for political parties to allocate seats to women  where there is only a remote possibility of winning. Thus the BJP can allocate women seats in Kerala and Tamilnadu  while the CPM can give women seats in states other than Kerala and West Bengal. Thus the total number of women winning elections may not go up from current 10%.

What can we expect when more and more bahus and betis are elected?  

 A study of 523 villages in 4 southern states of India by Radu ban and Vijayendra Rao had the following findings.
  “Women leaders tend to be picked from among more politically knowledgeable and wealthier women. Panchayats led by women are no worse or better in their performance than those with male leaders, and women politicians may  not make decisions in line with the needs of women. Importantly, however,political experience enhances the performance of women leaders more than it does for men, women in villages which are less dominated by upper castes, and in states that have relatively mature panchayat systems, perform better than men.

Chattopadhyay and Duflo (2004) in a study in West Bengal and Rajasthan found that women tend to give more importance to water and sanitation than roads.

Lori Beaman, Raghebendra Chattopadhyay, Esther Duflo et al find evidence from West Bengal that 

“Villagers who have never been required to have a female leader prefer male leaders and perceive hypothetical female leaders as less effective than their male counterparts, when stated performance is identical. Exposure to a female leader does not alter villagers’ taste preference for male leaders. However, it weakens stereotypes about gender roles in the public and domestic spheres and eliminates the negative bias in how female leaders’ effectiveness is perceived among male villagers.  Consistent with our experimental findings, villagers rate their women leaders as less effective when exposed to them for the first, but not second, time. These changes in attitude are electorally meaningful: after 10 years of the quota policy, women are more likely to stand for and win free seats in villages that have been continuously required to have a female chief councillor”.

How an all women panchayath in Haryana is breaking several steroetypes is illustrated in this report.

In conclusion let me warn you that women’s reservation in legislatures is not a panacea for all evils in the society. The wealthy and powerful families will still rule the country unless a level playing field is created in regard to election expenditures. Females will be still discriminated and stereotyped.  The women members may not be much different in regard to corruption and in efficiency. 
But what ever be its limitations women’s reservation in Indian legislatures will be a big step forward in the struggle for abolishing gender discrimination.

 IHM’s post for Tehelka link


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