India decides on historic womens bill

The United Progressive Alliance, the ruling group of parties in India, finally reintroduced in Parliament last month a long delayed and eagerly awaited bill to advance women’s political representation.

Called the Women’s Reservation Bill, the measure would set aside 33 percent of federal and state legislature seats for women.

Although India once had a woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, currently only 9 percent of legislative seats are held by women.

With all the dividing lines in Indian society, from caste to class to language to religion, gender inequality cuts across all of them.

A welcome feature of the bill is that it provides preference to women from down-trodden communities like the Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables” or low castes).

The bill is currently under study and discussion by a 31-member standing committee on law and justice. Seven of the 31 members are women, including two representatives from the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The goal of 30 percent women’s representation in legislatures the world over was set at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995. But according to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, only 19 countries have achieved it so far.

While Latin American countries have progressed, the report notes, India lags far behind.

One bright spot for India is the village committee elections. One million women members occupy elected positions in these committees, called village panchayats.

In 1996, when the first federal government with left participation was elected, the first attempt to introduce this bill was made but it failed due to the entrenched feudal-like mindset among many in the opposition.

But now left parties have been pressuring the United Progressive Alliance government to go ahead with introduction of the bill, despite divisions within the ruling alliance.

When Law Minister H.R. Bhardwaj introduced the bill, vociferous protests erupted among some representatives of rightist political parties, and Bhardwaj had to be virtually escorted by the women legislators in the house.

National elections will be held in early 2009. If this bill becomes law before then, it will provide a tremendous boost for progressive forces in the elections.

If the opposition succeeds in blocking the bill, at least half of humankind will know who obstructs their march forward to equality.