Indian Democracy Needs the Full Participation of Women
For a democracy to be truly of, for and by the people, the democratic set-up should be conducive to not just women’s participation, but their active engagement and empowerment.
In India currently, women hold only 12% of lower house seats and 12.8% of upper house seats in national parliaments, despite making up 48% of India’s population and 47.5% of the registered voting population.
Equal rights and status for women is enshrined in the Constitution, however even after 66 years of freedom and democracy, Indian women do not enjoy full and equal rights.
The primary democratic deficit throughout the country is the under-representation of women in decision-making bodies
Violence against women
The December 16 2012 gang rape case in Delhi brought the issue of violence against women into the limelight. In 2014, there were 36,735 cases of rape, and 57,311 cases of kidnapping reported throughout the country. Rape is the fastest growing crime in India.
The risk of violence against women is widespread. 34% of Indian women experience violence at least once in their lives. This violence is institutionalised through family structures, wider social and economic frameworks, and cultural and religious traditions.
Gender-based violence starts before women are even born and nearly 600,000 girls are missing in India each year as a result of sex-selective abortions.
The practice of dowry, which involves the family of the bride giving gifts and money to the family of the groom, reinforces women’s subordination and their economic dependence on their husbands. Dowry disputes also often lead to violence against women and in 2014 there were 8,455 cases of dowry related deaths.
Domestic violence is the most common form of gender-based violence in India. Official statistics indicate that 36% of married women between the ages of 15-49 have experienced violence at some point since they turned 15.
Unequal access to healthcare
Women experience higher morbidity than men, but have less access to healthcare.
Approximately 59% of women suffer from anaemia and India’s maternal mortality rate is 174 per every 100,000 live births. In 2010 there were 57,000 maternal deaths across India. This amounts to one death every 10 minutes.
Unequal access to education
Women have less access to education and the female literacy rate of 65% remains 16% lower than the male literacy rate.
Women’s marginalisation from political life is preventing them from participating in society as complete and equal citizens
Quotas for women
If India is to achieve legitimate participatory democracy, it must breakdown the patriarchal structures that underpin this inequality.
One of the most effective ways of addressing gender inequality and discrimination is to ensure women’s active and direct participation in governance through the special measures such as quotas.
There is a strong need to expand the current reservation system to include State and National legislatures. The Women’s Reservation Bill, which was developed to address this need by establishing a 33% reservation of seats for women in state and national governance.
After being tabled several times in the late 1990s the reformed Bill was finally re-introduced into the Parliament in March 2008. There was significant opposition to the Bill within the Parliament, but it was finally passed by the upper house in 2010. However, the Bill is still awaiting approval in the lower house and has now been pending for years.
The Bill could also help address ongoing discrimination and marginalisation within the Parliament. Women are less likely to be nominated as candidates and are often marginalised from powerful positions within party structures. Of the 543 elected MPs in the general election in India 2014, only 61 are women.
Initiatives must also be developed either at the government or political party level to ensure that all political parties provide 33% of winnable tickets to women candidates.
In addition, women who are politically active, either as engaged citizens or elected representatives, often face discrimination, harassment and violence at the hands of disgruntled community members and political rivals or even their own families and political parties.
Another step towards empowering women would be to train them in carrying out their responsibilities effectively and successfully. Leadership training programmes must target and mobilise women from all levels of society who hold or have a strong desire to take on leadership roles.
These training programmes should build their capacity to participate in governance structures and teach them how to be effective leaders and agents of change within their communities. Further, training modules must include the process of filing for candidature and campaigning as well as providing information on electioneering machinery.
Central and state level institutional support must also be provided to women’s organisations that work for the political empowerment of women.
After 66 years of democracy India continues to face many challenges in the realisation of inclusive and genuine democratic governance.
The primary democratic deficit throughout the country is the under-representation of women in decision-making bodies particularly in the state and national legislatures.
India is not alone in this, but women’s marginalisation from political life is preventing them from participating in society as complete and equal citizens.