Women’s Political Empowerment Day is a celebration for women representation in Panchayati Raj Institutions, initiated by The Institute of Social Sciences in 1994. Every year, over 600 women representatives from various Panchayats in India participate in this event where local-level achievements are recognised and information about their constitutional duties and rights is shared. The aim is to encourage women’s participation in our political system at all levels and educate them about their political rights.
When the day was first commemorated in 1995, 33% of seats in PRI’s were reserved for women, whereas today, on the 26thyear of celebration, 50% of seats in PRI’s in most states are reserved for women.
We take this opportunity today, to talk about the importance of understanding and exercising your political rights. Extending the ideology of the day, political empowerment for women, beyond the Panchayati Raj Institutions to general democratic functions. The Indian Lok Sabha Elections 2019 are currently underway, and it becomes more so important to understand why political participation is relevant to achieving gender equality or gender justice.
It all started with this: the vote and first wave of Feminism
Political participation has long been a contentious issue. With New Zealand giving women the right to vote in 1893, and Saudi Arabia extending the right to vote to women in 2011, it remains a relevant topic for discussion. The right to vote was also one of the major focusses of the suffrage movement in western countries, often considered to be the first wave of feminism.
Beware of ‘quota’: equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome
Women currently make up approximately 48% of the Indian population, however, there are only 12% of women members in the Lok Sabha (66 out of 521 sitting members). In the US, with the new congress recently elected an astounding cabinet, representative of various minorities and accounting for 25% of women representatives.
Demanding reservation for women in the Lok Sabha however may prove counterproductive. Setting a minimum seats for women, will undoubtedly achieve equality of outcome, however, the real problem would be when the likes of Sadhvi Pragya are your female representatives in the legislative assembly. We also have instances where inept female politicians and ineffective ‘leaders’ have been given ministerial portfolios to satisfy the ‘quota’. So maybe mandating minimum seats may not be ideal given the range of female ‘leads’ we have available.
The alternative will be to encourage more women to participate in political affairs at the local level. Politicians such as Sushma Swaraj, Anandiben Patel and Sumitra Mahajan started their careers in the local governing bodies, acting as mayor for their respective ‘constituent’ cities. The impact one Chhavi Rajawat has had on our local governing body has been an inspiration and a challenge for us to rise up to.
“Can women save the world? A ripped Captain Marvel can rescue us from intergalactic enemies, but down here on planet Earth a new paradigm of female leadership is emerging. A year ago, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand was famous for being a world leader who gave birth while in office. Then came the slaughter in the Christchurch mosques and overnight the gravitas in her angular face beneath a hijab became an iconic image of global humanity.”
What adding female perspective achieves:
It is important to include the female perspective in all stages of country governance to ensure we achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal of Gender Equality. A prime example of female leadership in times of crisis has been Jacinda Ardern, her response to terrorism has been humanising and inspiring. Adding female perspectives to other extensions of democratic functions, such as judiciary will also greatly impact how policy is formed, interpreted and implemented.
Currently there are 3 female justices serving at the Supreme Court of India, and only around 11% judges in high courts and 28% judges in lower judiciaries are women. It has been noted that male judges have in turn victim shamed complainants in rape cases whereas female judges take more progressive stance in recognising women’s rights as human rights. In case you missed it, our current Chief Justice of India, the man charged with framing, upholding and interpreting our constitutional body, has been accused of sexual misconduct. One can only imagine the development of our legal body if we were guided by a more representative bench.
While the modern woman in India is navigating home, education, career and is interested in her political future, women’s issues in India are far from resolved. Women should take active part in their social lives: exercise their right to vote, right to contest for elections, apply for judiciary positions and the executive body. The world is witness to what happens when you include young, enthusiastic, passionate women in a Congress: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has raised some incredible points about climate change which impact the world population as global citizens.
The UN recommends that for progress of nations, we must ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life. Although, in the modern global context, India is faring better than its ‘developed’ counterparts. We have had a female Prime Minister, President and 2 women House Speakers, however, we ought to encourage political participation at all levels.
This voting season, let us participate, vote, become involved in decisions that affect us, as women, as individuals and as a collective society.