India gave its women adult franchise with Independence. Yet, it is seen as an unequal space for women. Traditional violence through accepted inequality has been overlaid with modern violent interpretations of sexual dominance and moral policing. Women have persistently fought patriarchy and continue to be seen as a commodity.

Since the 1950s, women’s groups here have spearheaded countrywide movements centred on employment, literacy and land rights. In the 1970s and 1980s, feminists fought for an alternative political ideology based on equality and peace. In unpacking that paradigm, we see two different processes in dialectic.

One is the issue of women’s visibility, presence, representation which can be codified and enumerated; and the other for empowerment. Visibility is often seen as tokenism; an oft-quoted example is that women sarpanches survive because of the “ sarpanch pati or beta ”.

Derecognition of work

Fighting for substantive empowerment and change also entails a struggle for basic perceptional changes, against the revival of rape, khap panchayats, honour killings, sati -- many of which require fundamental change in values.

But to see these two processes — one for empowerment and another for change in values — as parallel would be a mistake. In demanding visibility we struggle to access equality within the legal framework. This empowers us to fight a battle in the more difficult areas of socio-economic and political inequality.

The struggle for women’s representation straddles both these issues.

Women represent almost 50 per cent of the population of India. But their representation in Parliament is only about 10 per cent. The injustice of denying representation of women in legislative decision making is underlined in the context of overall development indicators of women.

According to the Human Development Report 2013, India ranks 132 out of 148 countries on the Gender Inequality Index. Female participation in the labour market is 29 per cent, compared with 80.7 per cent for men. Women’s ownership of land and property is less than 4 per cent, whereas 73 per cent of food is produced by rural women (NSS 66th-2009-10).

Given the systematic derecognition of women’s work in the socio-economic realm, their deliberate exclusion from political participation is unacceptable. It is a violation of democratic rights.

Statistics continue to dishearten; India ranks well below the global average in terms of women’s representation in Parliament, as well as amongst countries which have mandated the minimum representation of women in Parliament through law.

Poor participation of women in Parliament has a direct impact on the priorities and assumptions of policies and legislations. There will be a qualitative change in governance with the inclusion of women in decision-making processes.

The 15th Lok Sabha has a track record of passing the lowest number of Bills. The Bills awaiting passage include a Bill to reserve 33 per cent of seats in Parliament and the legislatures for women and another for reserving 50 per cent of seats in panchayats for women.

Political parties will have to, or will soon be forced to, recognise that if Parliament does not reflect contemporary trends in women’s education and excellence in varied fields, they will face a crisis of credibility.

Effects of representation

In Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Kerala, Karnataka, Orissa and Chhattisgarh, the initiative to launch minimum reservations for women in municipal corporations and PRIs has led to heartening outcomes. Many studies have revealed the positive impact on governance when women head the decision making bodies in rural areas.

Our experience in Rajasthan has shown that despite the exercise of patriarchal controls, caste and manipulation, reservation has helped many women to overcome major social taboos and constraints.

Most remarkable is the almost complete removal of gunghat , sitting at the same height as men on chairs etc. Beginning with a token equality, that caused acute discomfort and even confrontation, women sarpanches including Dalit women have been able to push boundaries and create spaces for the younger generation.

Women sarpanches in Rajasthan have begun to host Women’s Day celebrations and have pushed men to do the chores and occupy the invisible spaces conventionally occupied by women!

These women-dominated and managed events not only empower the women but become a part of the cultural education of a community. Their preoccupation with access to real development -- ‘softer issues’ — health, family child care, literacy, schools, housing, drinking water programmes has led to the prioritisation these issues.

Even issues of livelihood, displacement, migration, gender-specific issues, trafficking, state and communal violence, environmental hazards and related problems have got some space in the formal panchayats as an offshoot of growing concerns of women leaders.

Their track record proves that their presence in structures of governance has made a difference.

Stalled Bill

The 81st Constitutional Amendment Bill for women’s reservation was presented in Parliament in 1996. The passage of the 33 per cent women’s reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha on March 9, 2010, brought a sense of optimism to women in the country. But after four years this Bill still awaits passage in the Lok Sabha! A ‘consensus bill’ like the Women’s Reservation Bill has broad based support from all political parties, yet the same parties have stalled the passage of this Bill in session after session of Parliament.

We have adult franchise, but social inequality denies us equal space in structures. An important remedy lies in enabling women to fight feudal inequality with modern tools. Mere adult franchise is insufficient. Women must have access to real participation in governance through representation in decision making bodies.

The writer is a former member of the National Advisory Council and President, NFIW