- Sakshi Sohoni
The empowerment of women continues to be a significant focus area for governments and allied institutions across the globe. Increasing women’s participation in the public sphere – particularly in key decision-making positions has subsequently emerged as one of the means of achieving this end. In particular, the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, set a target of ensuring 30% women in positions at decision-making levels by 1995. Almost three decades later, most countries of the world are lagging behind significantly in meeting the targets and closing the gender gaps. In the Indian scenario, women’s participation in different spheres of public life has progressed at a slow rate. Globally, India ranks at 144th place in a list of 193 countries based on the percentage of elected women representatives in their national parliaments. India’s bicameral Parliament has female members who make up 14% of the lower house (Lok Sabha) and 11.6% of the upper house (Rajya Sabha). Women’s representation in other key decision-making roles like the judiciary also mirrors this trend of gender disparity. Just over 10% of current High Court Justices are women, while 4 out of the 32 current Supreme Court Justices are women. In a nation where 49% of the population is female, women continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles.
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Two main themes cover the essence of this problem - do women have access to opportunities and do they have the capacity to take up the role. India’s focus has largely been on the former. Legislative interventions over the years such as the policy of reserving a third of seats for women at the panchayat level and in municipalities have allowed women to make inroads as elected representatives, albeit in a non-uniform manner. Currently, 21 out of 28 states in India have reserved 50% of the seats for women in Panchayati Raj institutions. As per the Global Sustainable Development Database compiled by the United Nations, women occupy 44.37% of total seats in deliberative bodies of local government. The Constitution 110th Amendment Bill of 2009 which sought to reserve 50% seats for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions was introduced in the Lok Sabha. Similarly, The Constitution 112th Amendment Bill 2009 sought to reserve 50% seats for women in urban local bodies was also introduced in the Lok Sabha. At a national level, the Women’s Reservation Bill that sought to reserve 33% seats for women in central and state legislatures was introduced and passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2008. However, lack of political will has meant that these bills were not discussed in the other house and have not been reintroduced since.
Research and trends over the last two decades point towards substantial developmental gains that are realised when women come into decision making positions. From the manner of conduct to the issues that are focused on, women leaders have a distinct style of functioning when compared to their male counterparts. Women’s larger political identity in India is shaped by multiple factors. Women’s autonomy to make decisions (including ones like running for office or voting for a candidate) is likely to be limited, owing to the patriarchal nature of the Indian society. Moreover, women’s voice if at all considered, tends to get limited to domains that are deemed to be “women’s issues” like health, sanitation, food security and child care. While entry barriers have been somewhat addressed through affirmative action, women in politics have to face disproportionate standards and layers of subtle discrimination as they pave their way forward into the system. Data on the representation of women in key decision-making positions outside of politics or in the larger workforce suggests that the lack of capacity to meaningfully access opportunities is a common theme. In order to achieve the end of proportional representation of women in the political sphere and decision-making at large, it is important to work on several contributing factors. First, it is imperative to focus on education, economic empowerment and social inclusion collectively, to empower women to exercise their political identities – as citizens and decision-makers. Second, it is important to create an environment that is conducive to achieving success. It is necessary to build the right knowledge, skills, mindsets in office-bearers at a system level. Third, it is important to acknowledge the double standards, biases and unreasonable expectations we have as a society from elected representatives – especially women, that often come in the way of judging their public persona fairly. Finally, it is important to create a role model effect by highlighting trends and the impact created by women in decision making positions. In this regard, the decentralisation of power at the level of local self-government coupled with affirmative action has provided women with maximum access to opportunities. However, it is important to remember that access does not necessarily translate into complete autonomy to take decisions independently or influence them.
India’s growth and development story hinges on inclusion – not just for the fulfilment of our economic aspirations but equally in pursuit of the constitutional commitment towards equality of status and opportunity. For the needs, aspirations, constraints, ideas of half of the population to be reflected in decision making, women’s presence in all domains of public life in general and politics and governance in particular needs to increase. Legislation can only act as an enabling factor to the process of women’s empowerment and strengthening of identities. For ground reality to change, it is necessary to back it up with changes in mindsets and actions.
(Sakshi is an alumna of the Women in Government Fellowship and Teach For India Fellowship. Currently, she works as an associate with the Government Relations vertical in Teach for India)
 United Nations (1995). Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, Critical Area G, “Women, Power and Decision-Making”