Breaking Barriers: India's Parliament Reserves a Third of Seats for Women
Courtesy of The Guardian
In a momentous development for Indian democracy, the Women’s Reservation Bill, initially proposed 27 years ago, has finally received approval as of September 24.
The achievement comes after six previous attempts to pass the bill, marking a significant stride toward gender equality in politics. Transitioning from decades of struggle to the hopeful prospect of gender-balanced representation, the bill aims to reserve one-third of seats in the lower house of Parliament and state legislatures for women. Awaiting its next milestone, the legislation anticipates ratifications from at least 14 of India’s 28 state legislative bodies.
The bill garnered cross-party support and was celebrated widely among politicians. Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter to express his enthusiasm: "A historic moment in our country’s democratic journey! With the passing of this bill, the representation of women's power will be strengthened, and a new era of their empowerment will begin.” This move aligns with Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) broader strategy of projecting a women-centric image to garner more support in the upcoming elections.
India's Women’s Reservation Bill is a testament to the government’s deliberate commitment to bridging the gender gap in politics. Introduced in a society where women have faced significant barriers to political participation, it signifies a recognition that organic growth in women’s political representation may not suffice to overcome deeply entrenched biases and systemic hurdles. However, not all Indian women have supported the bill. Some advocates argue that this policy does not address the root causes of women's underrepresentation in politics, such as the patriarchal nature of Indian society and the lack of internal party democracy. Women may be less likely to be selected as candidates by political parties that are dominated by male leaders and less likely to be elected if they face opposition from voters who believe that women should not be involved in politics.
They also argue that the bill could lead to the formation of women's ghettos in politics, where women are relegated to certain types of seats or issues. Some women have expressed sentiments including, “We do not want reservation because women will make it on their own.” Women want to succeed in politics based on their merit, without the need for special quotas. Unfortunately, India’s current political landscape has disappointed this expectation.
Historically, the representation of women in Indian politics has grown at a disappointingly slow pace. From the 5% reservation established in 1954, there has been a growth of barely 9% over 75 years. Furthermore, many Indian women continue to avoid politics due to fears of discrimination—they still face persistent societal challenges in India’s political arena. This stresses the necessity of proactive measures like the Women’s Reservation Bill.
In contrast to India’s proactive approach, the United States has experienced organic growth in women’s political representation in Congress. While the US has made strides in promoting female representation by encouraging women to run for public positions and supporting groups that uplift women in the political sphere, the U.S. has not adopted a reservation system similar to India’s. The gradual increase in women's representation in Congress over the years in a historically male-dominated field embodies the evolving understanding and appreciation of women's role in shaping inclusive policy-making, ensuring that governance is more reflective of and responsive to the populace it seeks to serve.
In the 116th Congress (covering the 2019-2020 term), women held a historic number of seats, with 25% of the 535 total seats in the U.S. Congress—a significant milestone. Moreover, in the 117th Congress (covering the 2021-2022 term), the number of women grew, holding nearly 27% of seats. This organic growth in women’s political representation in the U.S. reflects a broader societal shift toward recognizing the importance of women’s voices in governance.
India, the world’s largest democracy with a population of 1.4 billion, boasts women as nearly half of its 950 million registered voters. However, only 15% of the members of the national Parliament are women, and just 10% of the state assemblies are women. When compared to global statistics, the underrepresentation of women in Indian politics becomes even more glaring. According to UN Women’s data, the worldwide share of lower house parliamentary seats occupied by women stands at about 26%. Nevertheless, only six nations worldwide have achieved 50% or more women’s representation in their parliaments or lower houses.
While the Women’s Reservation Bill passage is a momentous step, its full implementation could still take years. This delay is primarily due to the necessity of redrawing electoral constituencies, a process that can only begin after India completes its decennial census. Unfortunately, the census project, initially scheduled for 2021, has been repeatedly postponed due to the ongoing pandemic.
The passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill signifies a considerable milestone in India’s journey toward gender equality in politics. Yet, the nation still faces the challenge of translating this legislative victory into tangible, equitable representation for women in the corridors of power.