India's landmark step towards gender equality in parliament
This year, news of a truly groundbreaking event came from Bharat, a term rooted in Sanskrit that Nepal commonly uses to refer to India. I don’t mean the landing of Chandrayaan-3 on the moon's south pole. This historic event took place within India’s newly constructed parliament building, potentially sending a positive message to a significant part of the world.
On 20th September, the Lok Sabha, which is the Lower House of Parliament, enacted its 128th amendment to the Indian constitution. This was achieved with a supermajority. The following day, the Rajya Sabha, or the Upper House, unanimously approved the same constitutional amendment bill. This significant change ensures that one-third of seats in both the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies will be reserved for women.
To understand the potential impact of this decision, it's important to note that presently, only 15 percent of Lok Sabha members are women, and the average representation of women in state assemblies is a mere 9 percent.
Why is this such a significant development?
Because Bharat. The world's most populous country and the largest democracy. The fact that this achievement occurred, almost as if by magic, after several unsuccessful attempts in the past few decades, adds to its impressive nature. Naturally, as with any issue in a dynamic and contentious India, politics played a role. However, this time, the focus on 'vote-bank politics' resulted in an overwhelmingly positive outcome.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2024 and several legislative assembly elections slated to be held before that, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) aims to demonstrate its commitment to the empowerment of 'nari,' the Sanskrit term for women, which is formally incorporated in the bill's name. Therefore, this move is partly intended to secure more support from women voters and potentially secure Prime Minister Modi's third term in office.
Unlike before, there were no obstructions to making this historic decision. The influential regional political parties, primarily based in the conservative Hindu and Muslim heartland of North India, which had previously obstructed efforts to reserve seats for women, no longer hold sway at the federal level and are not aligned with the BJP at either the federal or state levels. Other major parties, including the primary opposition Congress, have been supportive of initiatives to implement quotas for women in legislatures. This enabled Prime Minister Modi to swiftly introduce and pass the bill in just three days, without concerns about losing any allies.
While the Women's Reservation Bill has been passed by Parliament, its provisions will not take effect until the 2029 elections, and certainly not in the upcoming year's election. This delay is due to the necessary legal steps to address issues like constituency delineation at both the federal and provincial levels, which, in turn, hinges on the completion of the new census.
Women's Representation in South Asian Legislatures
The status of female parliamentarians in South Asia reveals significant disparities.
Nepal stands out in the region by constitutionally guaranteeing a minimum of 33 percent representation for women in all elected bodies, including parliament, provincial assemblies, and municipalities. Bangladesh and Pakistan follow with nearly 21 percent female representation in the Lower House, as reported by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). In Bhutan, the figure for the Lower House is 17.4 percent, while in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, women hold 4.6 and 5.3 percent of parliamentary seats, respectively, according to the IPU's tally.
Certainly, the steps taken by the Indian parliament regarding women's representation in parliamentary and legislative seats are of historic significance. It will be particularly intriguing to observe how India, which employs the first-past-the-post electoral system exclusively, accomplishes the election of women (with seats being rotated).
India's commitment to enhancing women's representation could potentially have a positive influence, even in relatively progressive countries like Nepal. Debates are already underway in Nepal regarding the necessity to ensure that women secure 51 percent of parliamentary seats, aligning with the gender balance of the population.
In Nepal, the majority of female parliamentarians are elected through an indirect proportional representation system. Only a small fraction, amounting to 5.45%, are elected through directly contested, constituency-based first-past-the-post elections.
During the past year, as Nepal geared up for parliamentary and provincial assembly elections, female parliamentarians and campaigners initiated nationwide efforts. These endeavours included engaging in parliamentary debates to propose an increase in the number of female candidates and, with WFD support, having female MPs travel across the country to connect with the Nepali public.
These concerted efforts yielded positive results. According to a study conducted by the Democracy Resource Centre Nepal (DRCN), the 2022 elections saw a notable increase in the number of women filing candidacies, with 225 compared to 117 in 2017. Similarly, there was an uptick in the number of successful female candidates in 2022 (9) compared to 2017 (6).
Certainly, there is still a significant journey ahead to achieve gender parity in Nepali and other South Asian parliaments. However, today, let's celebrate the Indian parliamentary decision.
A New Beginning in India's 'Temple of Democracy
This year India unveiled its new parliament building, one of the world's largest legislative structures. This impressive edifice incorporates materials, designs, and architectural styles from all corners of diverse India. What makes it even more remarkable is that construction commenced amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Equipped with state-of-the-art technology, the building features electronic voting machines for each Member of Parliament (MP). These were utilised for the first time to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill. MPs transitioned from the old colonial-era building to this new structure for a specially convened session to discuss the bill.
Prime Minister Modi, whose government has faced allegations from the opposition of trying to stifle dissenting voices, has described the building as 'the temple of our democracy,' a symbol reflecting the aspirations and dreams of 1.4 billion Indians, sending a message of India's determination to the world. The choice of initiating the new building with a bill aimed at increasing the representation of women in parliament couldn't have conveyed a clearer message.