The Role Of Women's Reservation In Bolstering Their Political Participation

Despite a consensus on women's political participation, the strategies to tackle underrepresentation are debatable.

4 min read
Hindi Female

The Chief Election Commissioner while kick-starting the festival of the world’s largest democracy celebrated the fact that India’s gender ratio of 948 to 1000 is a "very healthy sign” of women's political participation.

This should be read along with the President of India’s assent to the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam Bill paving the way for 33% of seats for women in the Lok Sabha, State Legislative Assemblies, and the National Capital Territory Delhi.

This will go down in history as an important turning point in India’s political landscape. The Bill which turned into an act is hailed as a step in the right direction towards achieving substantive democracy considering the country's appalling performance in the political empowerment indicator of the Gender Parity Index (127 out of 147 countries).

While India celebrates these positive developments, there are important questions that need to be addressed such as why it took over seven decades to enact this reservation. What was the rationale behind the need for reservation?

Can it really transform the fate of India’s procedural democracy into a truly participatory democracy? Exploring the development of women's political rights and their representation will provide further insight into the issue.


The Hard-Fought Gender Equality in Politics

The passage of the Bill is the culmination of decades-long advocacy for women's reservation in the Parliament aiming for the true realisation of democracy that gives fair representation to 50% of its population.

If the history of the fight for political gender equality is any indication, globally women have suffered greatly when it comes to gaining political rights.

Until 1893, when New Zealand became the first nation to provide women the right to vote as equal citizens, women were regarded as second-class citizens and were not even allowed to vote, let alone having political representation.

Despite the Indian Constitution guaranteeing equal political rights to its half of the population since the time it attained independence, achieving political parity still seems like a distant dream. 


The Evolution of Women’s Reservation in Political Space

Global organisations such as the United Nations Women and United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) promote women's political representation, stating that the presence of women in Parliament directly correlates to the attention given to women's issues, and that gender equity and substantive democracy depend on the presence of women in Parliament.

There is a consensus on the importance of women's political participation, but the strategies to tackle underrepresentation are still a topic of debate.

The discussion around women's reservation in Indian politics dates back to 1931 when prominent figures such as Sarojini Naidu opposed giving women preference in the political sphere, arguing that this would violate their demand for absolute political status for women. Later, the issue was also brought up in the Constituent Assembly, and the founding fathers left it to a 'gentlemen's agreement,' convinced that the system would ultimately guarantee women's political representation.

The agreement between the gentlemen has clearly not been successful in fulfilling its promise, as only 15% of women in the 17th Lok Sabha, compared to nearly 45% in Scandinavian countries, serves as evidence.

Another case can be taken of the recent Rajasthan Assembly elections, wherein the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fielded women candidates. However, their winnability was low as compared to male counterparts pushing parties to prefer male candidates.

Despite this, not everything is hopeless; the Indian Constitution, as amended by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts, granted women a 33% reservation in local self- government. However, the reservation of seats at the national and state level was greatly awaited following several setbacks in the Parliament in 1996, 1999, 2003, 2004, and 2010.


Can Women’s Reservation Act Deliver on Its Promises?

The Women's Reservation Act seems to excite proponents of gender parity on the surface, but the devil is in the details.

The Act's implementation is dependent on a successful conclusion of the delimitation exercise slated for 2026, postponing the implementation timeline to 2029. Moreover, while the Act promises representation for women, it cannot guarantee the decision-making power being held by them.

Based on the experiences of the reservation of women in local government, there have been cases where Sarpanch Pati had taken on the role of Sarpanch instead of the female representatives. Moreover, women leaders at the helm have not been able to ensure women safety as witnessed in recent cases of sexual harassment emerging from a state ruled by a female chief minister.

The challenges ahead could impede the Act's success, nevertheless on the other hand, having more women in positions of power in politics can lead to increased focus on women's issues in policymaking and implementation.

Despite concerns and flaws, the implementation of women's reservations in political leadership positions is crucial at the present moment.

The World Economic Forum (WEF), 2023 reports that it would require 131 years for the world to eliminate the gender gap. However, implementing affirmative actions such as reservations in politics could potentially accelerate this process.  


Women’s Empowerment Must Extend to Politics

Empowering women requires multiple key steps:

  1. Building capability is crucial, as highlighted by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, through promoting gender equity in education.

  2. It is essential to raise political awareness among women regarding their political rights.

  3. Raising awareness among males about the importance of gender equality in society, including students through school curriculum.

There was a time when emphasising on women’s education, the first Prime Minister Pt Jawaharlal Nehru stated that educating a woman educates an entire family. It is now critical to apply this concept to the political realm.

Empowering women politically can lead to securing social justice for marginalised women and ultimately strengthening democracy.

In the general elections, the “very healthy sign” of Indian democracy for women's representation as stated by the Chief Election Commissioner will be put to a litmus test. Society has a collective responsibility to pass the 50% of the population ensuring it has adequate representation.

(Poonam Kushwaha is an Academic Associate at the Kautilya School of Public Policy. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from opinion

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More