Indian women get 33 pc reservation in legislatures

NEW DELHI: It didn’t quite make it as a ‘gift’ to Indian women for International Women’s Day (March 8) as UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi had wanted, but a landmark piece of legislation that guarantees one third representation for Indian women in all elected legislatures including Parliament cleared a huge hurdle on Tuesday.

The Rajya Sabha (or Upper House of Parliament) approved the legislation, the 108th Amendment to the Indian Constitution, by a huge majority.

The bill was passed with 186 members of the 245- member house voting in favour. Only one member voted against. Some members boycotted the vote. An amendment to the Constitution needs to be adopted by a two-thirds majority.

The bill was introduced on Monday amid high drama and uproar from a small but very vocal group of opponents, resulting in the suspension of seven MPs on Tuesday.

The Women’s Reservation Bill is widely seen as a major piece of affirmative action that seeks to ensure guaranteed adequate representation to women in a country that faces acute forms of gender inequality.

“Our women face discrimination at home, there is domestic violence, they face discrimination in equal access to education, healthcare, there are all these things,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said as he spoke extempore in support of the Bill. “All these things have to end if India is to realize its full potential.”

“The bill that is going to be passed today is a historic step forward, a giant step forward in strengthening the process of emancipation (of women),” the Prime Minister said. “This is a momentous development in the long journey of empowering our women,” he said. “What we are going to enact is a small token of homage to the sacrifices our women have made in nation building, in the freedom struggle, in all other nation building activities,” the Prime Minister said, echoing the voices of support in the House which saw a show of rare political consensus cutting across party lines to adopt the Bill.

The legislation seeks to correct the gender imbalance in legislatures of the world’s largest democracy, where women have never constituted more than 11 per cent of elected representatives.

There are currently 59 women in the 545-member Lok Sabha, or elected House of representatives. Under the new proposals the number of women would rise to 181. The composition of the 245-seat upper house, which at present has 21 women, will not be directly affected as its members are indirectly elected by state assemblies.

The women’s reservation bill was first proposed in September 1996. A tortuous 14 years later, with the same small set of dissenters, the first major step in getting the legislation enacted was adopted on Tuesday.

The Bill will now be sent to the Lok Sabha, where it also must be passed by a two thirds majority before it can become law, with the President’s assent.

India’s first woman President, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, has already extended support to the bill. In an interaction with women journalists yesterday she expressed confidence that the Bill, which she said would “facilitate the empowerment of women” would be adopted “with consultation and consensus.”

The Congress-led UPA government plans to bring the Bill before the Lok Sabha in the ongoing Budget session of Parliament.