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Indian Government Faces Allegation of Gender Bias


When India's first woman president took office this week, it was described as a boost for millions of women. But soon after, a senior woman police officer was denied a top appointment, stirring a fiery debate in the country on whether gender bias persists in the government. Anjana Pasricha has a report from New Delhi.

For many people, 72-year-old Pratibha Patil's recent election as India's president was a symbol of empowerment for women in a country where they still face widespread discrimination.

But the same day that Mrs. Patil was sworn in, the government passed over a female police officer, Kiran Bedi, who was next in line to take over as Delhi's police chief, in favor of a junior colleague. The government said only that it was an "administrative decision."

The move has stirred a controversy - it was the third instance in recent months that women were pushed aside to allow men to take top positions in the government. Two bureaucrats, Veena Sikri, and Reva Nayyar in line to take the jobs as Foreign Secretary and Cabinet Secretary were similarly passed over.

Women's groups have cried foul, saying competent officers are being overlooked in the government due to gender bias.

Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, says the gains made by selecting a woman president have been undone.

"We believe that the appointment of president was not by choice, it was just a compulsion of politics," said Kumari. "I don't think people sitting in power are thinking about really empowering women in India. It is not a hidden glass ceiling, it is an iron ceiling actually. That is what we are now thinking, the system is still not willing to provide spaces."

Kiran Bedi was the country's first woman police officer. She has won widespread praise for being tough and independent, and made a mark in several assignments. She has protested the government's move in denying her the top job.

"The current situation is a very, very sad message, and we are up against mountains," said Bedi. "The system has won because the system is very closed."

Women's groups point to the low female representation in the government - eight percent of parliament members, 15 percent of the bureaucracy and three percent of the judiciary - as evidence that India continues to be male dominated.

They point out that efforts to pass a bill to reserve one third of the seats in parliament for women have repeatedly been blocked by lawmakers, although both leading political parties say they support the move.

It is not as if women have not held top offices in India - Indira Gandhi was prime minister for nearly 14 years, (1966-77 and 1980-84) and her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi, heads the governing? Congress Party coalition. But critics say their rise to power was fueled by the fact that they belong to a powerful political dynasty.

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