Women’s Political Participation: A Long Way to Substantive Democracy

    • By,
      Poonam Kushwaha – Academic Associate, Kautilya

September 28, 2023 will go down in history as an important turning point for the world’s largest democracy. On this day, India took a significant step towards achieving substantive democracy by receiving the President of India’s assent to the Nari Shakti Vandana Adhiniyam Bill. The approval of the President paved the way for the 106th Constitutional Amendment Act, resulting in the reservation of 33% of seats for women in the Lok Sabha, State Legislative Assemblies, and the National Capital Territory Delhi. The Act is a step in the right direction considering India’s appalling performance in the Gender Parity Index (127 out of 147 countries) by the World Economic Forum. India’s political empowerment index performance is notably poor, with just over a quarter parity compared to Bangladesh, a neighboring country that has achieved over 50% parity.

The passage of the Bill is the culmination of decades-long advocacy for the women’s reservation in the Parliament, aiming for the true realization of democracy that gives fair representation to 50% of its population. If the history of the fight for political gender equality is any indication, women have suffered greatly when it comes to gaining political rights. Until 1893, when New Zealand became the first nation to provide women the right to vote as equal citizens, women were regarded as second-class citizens and were not even allowed to vote, let alone political representation. Despite the Indian Constitution guaranteeing equal political rights to its half of the population since the time it attained independence, achieving political parity still seems like a distant dream. Exploring the development of women’s political rights and their representation will provide further insight into the issue.

Evolution of Women’s Reservation in Political Space

Global organizations such as UN Women and UN ESCAP promote women’s political representation, stating that the presence of women in Parliament directly correlates to the attention given to women’s issues, and that gender equity and substantive democracy depend on the presence of women in Parliament. There is a consensus on the importance of women’s political participation, but the strategies to tackle underrepresentation are still a topic of debate. The discussion around women’s reservation in Indian politics dates back to 1931, when prominent figures such as Sarojini Naidu opposed giving women preference in the political sphere, arguing that this would violate their demand for absolute political status for women. Later, the issue was also brought up in the Constituent Assembly, and the founding fathers left it to a ‘gentlemen’s agreement,’ convinced that the system would ultimately guarantee women’s political representation.

The agreement between the gentlemen has clearly not been successful in fulfilling its promise, as only 15% of women in the 17th Lok Sabha, compared to nearly 45% in Scandinavian countries, serves as evidence. Despite this, not everything is hopeless; the Indian Constitution, as amended by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts, granted women a 33% reservation in local government. However, the reservation of seats at the national and state levels was greatly awaited following several setbacks in Parliament in 1996, 1999, 2003, 2004, and 2010.

Optimism But Not Without Apprehensions

The Women’s Reservation Act seems to excite proponents of gender parity on the surface, but the devil is in the details. The Act’s implementation depends on a successful conclusion of the delimitation exercise slated for 2026, postponing the implementation timeline to 2029. Moreover, while the Act promises representation for women, it cannot guarantee decision-making power being held by women. Based on the experiences of the reservation of women in local government, there have been cases where Sarpanch Pati had taken on the role of Sarpanch instead of the women representatives. The challenges ahead could impede the Act’s success; nevertheless, on the other hand, having more women in positions of power in politics can lead to increased focus on women’s issues in policymaking and implementation.

Despite concerns and flaws, the implementation of women’s reservations in political leadership positions is crucial at the present moment.WEF, 2023 reports that the world would require 131 years to eliminate the gender gap. However, implementing affirmative actions such as reservations in politics could accelerate this process. Empowering women requires multiple key steps. First and foremost, as highlighted by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, building capability is crucial through promoting gender equity in education.

Moreover, it is essential to raise political awareness among women regarding their political rights. Lastly, raising awareness among males about the importance of gender equality in society, including students, through the school curriculum. There was a time when emphasizing women’s education, the first Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru stated that educating a woman educates an entire family. It is now critical to apply this concept to the political realm. Empowering women politically can lead to securing social justice for marginalized women and ultimately strengthening democracy.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.