The population of India currently stands at 1.37 billion, among which women constitute 48% or 497 million as opposed to 532 million or 52% men. In the recently conducted Lok Sabha elections, 78 women members were elected among a gigantic 542 members. For a nation with 497 million women, are 78 women parliamentarians enough?
Agreed that this progression conquers a small fraction of a fundamentally patriarchal society, but, is this representation enough? The women lawmakers just about 14.36% in the Parliament, a feat still a considerable distance from a reasonable measure of gender equality. So where are we now in 2019?
Are women around the world finally sharing political power and leadership in equal proportion to their number in the population? And in equal proportion to men? The United States saw its first woman elected to parliament in 1917, but has struggled ever since to increase their representation. The USA is currently rated at 103 out of 193 nations for Women in National Parliaments. The United Kingdom on the other hand sits at 39/193, with 32% seats in the House of Commons held by women, and a concerted push underway to commit Parliament and Local Government to a 45% female quota by 2030. Around the globe a total of 23.3% national parliament seats are held by women, with only 18% of Ministries headed by women.
The card of womanhood has often been deployed by our politicians as a tool to garner votes. We cannot deny we did not see the same in May '19. Parties have cleverly positioned women in their high decibel campaigns and manifestos. When on the one hand, women voters are a decisive factor during elections, why has their political participation been abysmal? While formal instruments such as quotas, in one form or another, have been used effectively in all nations that have significantly improved the political participation of women, they are far from being entirely representative. We may be the largest democracy in the world, but why does the goal of genuine representation embodied in the very name of the legislature, the 'Lok' Sabha, elude us?
Not merely a matter of impartiality and gender equality
This increased diversity in the Indian Parliament is definitely a success worth celebrating, but what is the point of having such diversity if the larger picture i.e. progress of the nation is unheeded? Having women in legislative politics is not merely a matter of impartiality and gender equality. Agreed, women representatives serve as strong role-models for girls and women, but, what objective do they serve if they are not representative and chipping in? Just 78 women among an enormous 542 MPs aren't there merely to embody equality of the sexes and women's rights and empowerment, varying from triple talaq to Beti Bachao Beti Padhao. Is fighting for women's rights gender-specific? No. Our MPs sans the gender politics that divides them are there to represent all of India and bring about positive change.
Women are trailblazers, painting serene pictures of progress across the globe. The fairer sex, the vote bank that has always been a decisive factor in any elections, the cluster that had been amiss in India's political milieu is finally making strides to come into the light.
Having a Lok Sabha, the composition of which better reflects wider society, adds legitimacy to the democratic process. Also, Narenda Modi 2.0 administration has included only 6 women ministers, with only Nirmala Sitharaman, Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Smriti Irani getting cabinet ranks. India ranks 153 out of 190 nations in the percentage of women in the lower house of world parliaments. Despite women accounting for half the world's population, the parliamentary universe has remained stubbornly dominated by men. The numbers are even lower for decision-making positions. Funnily, even Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Nepal for that matter are ahead in the race of women's political representation in parliament.
Today, we hail Nirmala Sitharaman for being India's first full-time woman defence minister and for currently helming the vital finance ministry. Commendable as they may sound; here's why I find these acclaims quite amusing. Do you forget that not only some of the largest business conglomerates across the globe but also finance and economic portfolios are being governed by women? Unquestionably, to oversee such influential positions in financial services they must possess seamless business acumen and tough personal tenacity, right? Are we forgetting powerhouses Indra Nooyi, Kristalina Georgieva, Janet Henry, Sheryl Sandberg, Arundhati Bhattacharya just to name a few?
History has been testimony to the fact that women have time and again proved their mettle as economists, simply put, in handling money better. Similarly, a more diverse parliament is a reminder that your gender, religion, race or sexuality should not be a restraint on your value and the value you add or your ability to contribute to society.
Politics works best only when it is representative
Thus, a legislature may have massive diversity, but, does that connote action? We have to understand one simple statistic – merely electing women will not end all sexism everywhere or get money out of politics or even guarantee that every individual female politician is someone you agree with. Growing up, I didn't see many women in positions of power. While progress has been made on gender equality in the public sphere, we need to remember that politics works best only when it is representative of all communities it serves.
Maybe being a woman has, finally, become an asset in democracies — as it should be. But the reason to elect women is not only because they are nicer, or work harder, or are less corrupted by power, or anything else for that matter. The reason to elect women is that we are more than half of the nation and should represent a lot more in the legislature as well. I am eager to see that this visible upsurge in diversity amongst MPs will act as a catalyst, aiding added engagement from previously marginalized sections.
Now you ask, why these above-mentioned numbers matter? I say, they do on several counts.
For starters, the full and equitable participation of women in public life is essential to building and sustaining strong, vibrant democracies. Meaningful participation of women in national, local and community leadership roles has off late become an important focal point across global development policies. Still, we ask why does it matter that women become political leaders, elected policymakers or civil society activists? Why does the world need more women involved in all aspects of the political process? It's simple. There has been documented evidence both at an international and at the gram panchayat level to suggest that women's political participation results in tangible gains for democracy, including greater responsiveness to citizen needs and a more sustainable future.
Swami Vivekananda has rightly said: "There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved." Women's participation in politics helps advance gender equality and affects both the range of policy issues that get considered and the types of solutions that are proposed. We have clearly seen evidence that as more women are elected to office, there is a corollary increase in policy making that emphasizes quality of life and reflects the priorities of families, women and minorities.
My second case in point. Winning a seat isn't necessarily the problem, being nominated in the first place is. In 1993, what can be called a defining moment, the 73rd and 74th Indian constitutional amendments mandated 33.3% reservation for women in Panchayats and Urban Local Bodies. 22 years later, why is the Women's Reservation Bill out of reach? Mere amendments on paper cannot remedy the structural barriers, sexism and prejudice that discourage women from entering politics or rising to the top when they do. Opponents of gender quotas have time and again talked about how the right person for the job should be the one selected to run and hasn't gone unnoticed that the people they deem right for the job is always a man. This is offensive and mortifying, when you think about it. We are in 2019 and still why is it that women still have to work much harder to ensure their voices are heard?
Woefully poor record
India has had a long-serving woman prime minister and several women chief ministers and speakers of the House. Yet, its record of women parliamentarians is woefully poor. Indian politics may soon be cited as a model of gender inclusiveness, but things, the system cannot change unless we are willing to. Let's encourage, empower and support women in becoming strong leaders. While New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, made global headlines over giving birth whilst in office and for being the 1st world leader to take her baby into a United Nation's General Assembly meeting, these 'firsts' sound as fascinating as they are far-fetched. When women in the top political seat, with babies in tow, are no longer global headlines but an uneventful norm, only then can we say, our Houses in the Parliament are truly 'Representative'.
[Dr. Somdutta Singh is an entrepreneur and former vice-chairperson of NASSCOM Product Council. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of International Business Times, India]