Sunday, 5 August 2007

Women at the bottom

The Telegraph

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Pratibha Patil may have become the President of India, but our women politicians have not really been proactive legislators, says Seetha

The irony was striking. Sharing front page space in the morning dailies with the news of Pratibha Patil's candidature for the presidential election was a gory story on aborted female foetuses being found in Patiala. And on the day she was sworn in as President, Kiran Bedi, senior-most Delhi cop, was bypassed for the post of Delhi police commissioner and a male officer, two years her junior, was appointed instead.

Patil's journey to Raisina Hill is unlikely to affect female foeticide or promotions of women in government. In fact, going by the record of women in politics or in high offices, there is little to cheer about. But there are those who think Patil's achievement is tremendously significant. "Having a woman President is important," exults Ranjana Kumari, president of WomenPowerConnect, a network of women's groups working for gender friendly policies.

Getting more women into politics and positions of power will, the argument goes, mean more attention to women's issues and other policies being viewed through a gender lens. "Numbers are important," adds Syeda Hamid, member, Planning Commission. "A critical mass is needed for policy making."

Yet many believe that while there are some exceptions, the performance of women in Parliament has mostly been unremarkable. Not too many women MPs, notes Indu Agnihotri of the Centre for Women's Development Studies, spoke on amendments to the Hindu Succession Act, despite its enormous implications for property rights for women, when the 50-year-old law came up for changes three years ago.

Some argue it is because parties don't give women a chance to speak. Congress leader Margaret Alva rues that party leaders tend to slot women MPs for women's issues alone. But the record of elected women MPs in non-legislative debates (where anyone can put in a request to speak) isn't very flattering either. Figures compiled for The Telegraph by PRS Legislative Research, a body doing research for parliamentarians and on Parliament, show that only 3.4 per cent of the 45 women MPs in the Lok Sabha participated in non-legislative debates in 2006, against 5.4 per cent in the case of the 497 male MPs.

Kumari puts the blame on the way parliamentary work is organised. Questions, after going through a filtering process, are put through a ballot system. Women's chance to ask questions is slimmer because they are outnumbered by men. But that doesn't seem to have stopped the 25 women in the Rajya Sabha from bettering their 220 male colleagues - a phenomenon explained by the fact that politicians are brought to the upper house mainly for their skills while winning an election is often the only criterion in the lower house.

The data do not give an indication of the subjects women MPs took up, though the long-pending bill for reserving electoral seats for women has been a common refrain. Kumari admits that WomenPowerConnect hasn't had much success in forming a ginger gender group in Parliament, much like the Young Parliamentarian's Forum. The United Nations Development Programme and Unifem had, in collaboration with the International Parliamentary Union, held several briefings and meetings with women MPs on a range of issues. But that, says Kalyani Menon-Sen, coordinator of the women's group, Jagori, did not result in the formation of an issues-based women's caucus.

The closest that women have come to forming a bloc is Parliament's Committee on the Empowerment of Women, set up in 1997. The committee is supposed to look at reports of the National Commission of Women (NCW) and suggest how they can be implemented and review the implementation of government programmes on women. One of the major achievements of the committee, Alva (who headed the group in 2003) notes, has been to get Rs 18 crore sanctioned for special jails for women and setting up halfway homes for women out on bail but not taken in by their families.

Missing, however, is any action on a slew of suggestions by the NCW on amendments to various laws and the enactment of new ones, complain activists.

It isn't as if all women MPs are poor performers. Across parties there are several who have proved to be extremely effective and vocal - from Mamata Banerjee and Sushma Swaraj to Brinda Karat and Alva. Women from activist backgrounds, says Agnihotri, are more dynamic than the others. If the late Pramila Dandavate was active both outside and within Parliament on domestic violence and dowry, Renu Chakravartty played a key role in legislation relating to maternity benefits and working women's rights. "But what drove them was not their gender but their political ideology," says Agnihotri.

Ideology (along with party line) is one reason why getting a uniform gender stance on issues could be a bit difficult, admits CPM MP Brinda Karat. Indeed, the opposition within Parliament to the Muslim Women's Bill tabled by the Rajiv Gandhi government in the mid-Eighties came mostly from non-Congress women MPs. The divide was apparent also in debates on the recently passed Domestic Violence Act, where some women MPs were uncomfortable with the legislation covering non-marital relationships as they felt this would encourage live-in relationships. "My understanding of a woman's role will be quite different from that of some BJP members. We may not be able to forge a joint stand on every issue," says Karat.

The record of women chief ministers has also been patchy, with only Tamil Nadu's Jayalalithaa standing out as having gone beyond rhetoric on women and child care issues. Topping the list is the innovative "cradle baby scheme" launched in 1991 to help tackle female infanticide. Unwanted girl children could be left in a cradle at government-run hospitals and the district collector's office and then be adopted by the government. Equally significant was the all-women police stations set up during her tenure and which now number close to 200 and the big push she gave to women self-help groups.

Even Sheila Dixit, who has been Delhi chief minister for 10 years now, has not been able to better this record. While the Stree Shakti programme launched in 2002, which seeks to empower poor women through initiatives in health, literacy, and income generation, gets applause, Dixit hasn't been able to address the biggest problem of women in Delhi - safety. Equally disappointing is the lack of action on female foeticide and sex determination clinics.

But Hamid and Karat wonder why women alone have the burden of taking up women's issues. Indeed, much of the focus on women's issues in government programmes came during Rajiv Gandhi's time. Is there a message in this?


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