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Women in Parliament

Sisterhood rising

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F-FORCE : (From left) MPs Harsimrat Kaur, Yashodhra Raje and Bhavana Gawali talk to the media during a protest against the recent Delhi gang rape

The presence of more women in our Parliament does not necessarily signal their growing empowerment in society. But it certainly helps bring issues like rape into sharper focus.

Cutting across party lines, women Parliamentarians such as Meira Kumar, Sushma Swaraj, Jaya Bachchan and Najma Heptullah expressed outrage at the gang rape in Delhi and demanded prompt and stringent action. Does this mean that they regularly use their growing political clout to highlight gender issues? Not necessarily.

A few weeks ago in October, India had played host to 35 countries whose delegates were attending the seventh meeting of women Speakers in gender- sensitive Parliaments. Inaugurating this meeting, President Pranab Mukherjee pointed out: "Gender equality and sensitivity is not guaranteed simply by the presence and number of women in Parliament. It depends on a Parliament's level of recognition of the importance of gender sensitivity, its responsive policies and infrastructure. "

At this meeting on gender sensitive Parliaments, Barbara Prammer, Speaker of the National Council of the Austria's Parliament had pointed out that: "Quotas are tried and found useful instruments to ensure women's participation in politics. " Currently, nearly 28 per cent of the total parliamentarians in the lower house of Austria are women, with a higher representation of 31 per cent in the upper house.

Unfortunately, women power doesn't rule in Parliaments across the world. According to latest data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union globally the percentage of women representatives in the lower house was 20. 7 per cent and in the upper house was 18. 1 per cent. India had just 11 per cent and 10. 6 per cent women representation in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha respectively.

The Women's Reservation Bill or Constitution (108th amendment) Bill which proposed to reserve 33 per cent of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and in the state legislative assemblies is still pending. Various similar bills, which were introduced over the past several years since 1996, have lapsed. When it comes to the state level, we are slightly better off, with 50 per cent women's reservation across 15 states such as Bihar and Maharashtra.

"In general, women perceive themselves as powerless and society also views them as such. If they are equally represented in the Parliament it will send out a strong signal and in turn reduce their vulnerability to sexual violence. Even a girl child then, would be perceived differently by her family and by the society, " states Medha Nanivadekar, a fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy, Washington DC and head of the centre of women studies, Shivaji University.

That said, perhaps more so in the Indian context it is also vital that women Parliamentarians are not just 'rubber-stamps' for their male family members, but should contest elections based on their merits.

A quick analysis of the questions raised by our women Parliamentarians in both Houses, over a period of past one year up to the current Winter Session indicates that they have raised pertinent issues. These range from questions relating to female foeticide, seeking details of rape cases pending disposal by courts, and soliciting details on actions taken against khap panchayats for imposition of diktats on the people. Questions in Parliament ensure the accountability of various ministries.

That said, some of our women Parliamentarians, have also shown a callous attitude on several occasion. For instance, West Bengal chief minister Mamta Banerjee famously blamed a rape victim for fabricating a story to malign her government. Media reports of rape continue to be viewed as a conspiracy. A couple of months ago, Haryana's education minister, Geeta Bhukal, had claimed that the spike in the number of rapes reported in her state was a "conspiracy".

In 2008, when journalist Soumya Viswanathan was murdered as she was returning home late at night, Delhi's chief minister had implied that the victim had brought this on herself. It has also been seen that on issues which are identified as being against "Indian culture" - such as divorce on grounds of an irretrievable breakdown of marriage - women Parliamentarians have virtually ganged up to blocked change. These included veterans such as Jaya Bachchan and Najma Heptullah.

The Delhi meeting concluded with the adoption of an initiative for gender sensitive Parliaments. Women Speakers committed to promoting women's representation in Parliament and other elected bodies by supportive electoral laws and other measures. They also took upon themselves the task of mentoring other women Parliamentarians and sensitising all members.

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