When the Nirbhaya happened in 2012, we saw an outburst of public outcry and the entire nation flocking towards the National Capital demanding justice. Unfortunately, it was not the first or the last time; the country was shocked when the Disha happened in 2019 and was not relieved from the trauma when Hathras occurred. And every time, people gathered, protested, demanded justice, and then conveniently forgot till the next. How can we ensure safe, secure, equal, and better living standards for all citizens irrespective of gender bias? Whenever an instance of assault on a woman or any other problems women encounter becomes a topic of discussion in India, we often come across terms like 'safety for women' and women empowerment. Irrespective of the party lines, we hear our politicians vehemently making speeches and conducting rallies supporting this cause. What I find ironic is that 'how can you 'empower' without 'power'?'
The number of women legislators in the Loksabha after the first general elections in 1951 was 24. Seventy years later, 78 women got elected to the Parliament in the seventeenth Loksabha elections in 2019. Even though this is the highest number of women legislators the Loksabha has ever seen, they only make up about 14% of the Loksabha. Consider Kerala, a high-performing state in terms of the human development index with the highest female literacy ratio. Nine women contested the first General election in 1957, of which six won. Sixty years later, only eight women won the elections to the state legislature in 2016. A look at the number of women who contested the election would give a grim picture of the situation. The number of women candidates fielded by the National Parties relevant in the state is as follows-CPM(12), CPI(4), INC(8), BJP(10) for 140 seats in the state legislature! Further, there is only one woman among the 20 representatives to the Loksabha from the state.
In India, 1 in 2 persons is a woman, but in Loksabha, not even 1 in 4 is a woman, and in the state legislature of Kerala, the state with a high sex ratio, not even 1 in 10 is a woman. As long as equal representation at the legislative bodies is absent, no law can protect or empower women. Rajyasabha passed the Women's Reservation Bill in 2010, which became pending at the Loksabha. The challenges to pass the bill and change the Constitution pertains. However, there is no need to change any Constitution for our political parties to give more party tickets to women since they all hail women empowerment. So let us challenge our political parties to provide 50% of their party tickets in the elections to the state legislative assembly and Parliament to women in the coming years. Let a party contesting in 140 seats give 70 seats to women. Let us see who means it when they say they want to empower.
All India Trinamool Congress and Biju Janatha Dal gave 41% and 33% of their party tickets to women respectively in the elections to Loksabha in 2019. It got reflected in the election results. West Bengal and Odisha are among the top states in terms of the percentage of women elected to Loksabha. These are steps towards a positive direction but not adequate since they don't ensure equal participation and hence one cannot expect the situation to change for women. The Constitution mandated reservation to 1/3rd of seats in the Panchayats and the office of Chairpersons. Kerala is one of the 20 states which extended this to 50% reservation. In the elections to the Panchayats in December 2020, the state witnessed the active participation of women. The state hosts the youngest Panchayat President and the youngest Mayor in India, both women. So one thing is clear: women are interested in leading and getting involved in political activities further are quite efficient at holding portfolios as much as men do. Then who restricts the political empowerment of women to the panchayats? Why is the political participation at the panchayat level not translated to the state legislative assemblies and Loksabha, where the laws for the entire state and the country are articulated and made?
The presence of more women in the legislatures is beneficial not just for women but also for society's betterment. We have seen minister KK Shailaja receiving not just Kerala's people's, but the entire nation’s appreciation and acceptance because of her dedicated efforts to cope with difficult times. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state maintained a low mortality rate due to early intervention. She was honoured by the United Nations in June 2020 for her efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic in Kerala. Through her empathetic leadership and ardent dedication, she coordinated the health department to fight the Nipah virus in 2018, which otherwise could have ended up as an even worse pandemic than covid. In Kozhikode district, where the Nipah virus originated and spread, the minister worked with the officials and the health care professionals through thick and thin. The state saw the catastrophic floods in 2018, followed by another in 2019, but the preventive measures and precautions taken under her leadership shunned the spread of infectious diseases or other public health emergencies.
As a citizen, we all have equal responsibility towards all the incidents happening in our country. Let us realise that lack of response is also a response. Instead of remaining silent, complaining to each other, and doing nothing, let us start demanding constructively. Let us stop waiting for others to take the initiative and change the situation. Let us be the change that we want to see. Let us make sure that more women are there in the legislative bodies when another election happens in our states or the country. Let us use our power as citizens to demand equal political representation of women. Empowerment is not about lighting candles at the break of every one or two years. Let such a candle not burn anymore!
Aparna Dev, Advocate, Women for Politics
Aparna is an IISER Thiruvananthapuram alumnus. She is passionate about public policy, politics and would like to promote diversity, inclusion, and equity at workplaces.
She could be reached on LinkedIn here.
Sketch credits: Aparna
This article gives the views of the author, and not necessarily represent the position of Women for Politics.