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India Considers Reserving Parliament Seats for Women

Women activists of India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shout slogans during a protest against the ruling government for the women's reservation bill in front of parliament in New Delhi, March 9, 2010.
Women activists of India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shout slogans during a protest against the ruling government for the women's reservation bill in front of parliament in New Delhi, March 9, 2010.
Kurt Achin

A bill to guarantee Indian women a role in national-level politics may come to a vote soon, after being debated and shaped for nearly two decades.

The so-called Women's Reservation Bill would be a first step toward amending India's constitution to reserve one third of the country's parliament seats for women.

Similar quotas are already in place in municipal and local levels around the country.  Supporters of implementing a national quota say it would go far in furthering gender equality and women's empowerment.

Chhavi Rajawat is a sarpanch, or leader, of a local council known as a panchayat in the Indian state, Rajasthan, says the Women's Reservation Bill would address a historical imbalance.

"Given the fact that that balance has not been maintained, something has to drive it and therefore, I think, women reservation is required to allow that," said Rajawat.  "Otherwise, I, perhaps, would not have been a sarpanch if there was not a reserved seat for women."

Advocacy groups say India's traditional society creates very serious obstacles to women's advancement.  A recently released United Nations Children's Fund report said 57 percent of Indian adolescent boys surveyed felt it was acceptable for a man to beat his wife.  The male-to-female birth ratio is skewed in favor of men on average, suggesting to medical experts that Indian families avoid having female babies with selective abortion.

The director of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi, Ranjana Kumari, is pushing for the passage of the reservation bill.

"I think the quota for women should be made mandatory given the political-party system, which is absolutely, totally male controlled and male dominated," said Kumari.  "And, also when you look at the way women are so skewed in terms of numbers in political party, even the membership of the political party, decision making of the political party, is all under the male control."

Critics of the bill say that it would only help women from elite and rich families to enter politics.  They fear it would marginalize lower-caste and tribal Indians, as well as Muslims.

Lawmaker Neeraj Shekhar says he is not opposed to reserving seats for women, but wants the reserved seats to be more inclusive of India's diverse groups.

"We are for reservation, but there should be a reservation for scheduled castes, scheduled-tribes' women and minorities also," Shekhar noted.

Backers of the women's bill say implementing it will change Indian politics for the good, refocusing the legislative agenda on providing basic services like education and drinking water.

A village council member in Himachal Pradesh state, Shashi Kiran, says the traditional household role of women makes them uniquely qualified to set political priorities.

Kiran says women have more perseverance and are more hardworking than men.  She adds that women are more trustworthy and they understand the needs of their house and what it is that society lacks.

The bill was passed by India's Rajya Sabha, or upper house, two years ago.  Supporters are hopeful it may come to a vote as early as this month in the lower house, the Lok Sabha.  It would not guarantee women's representation forever, just for three election cycles, 15 years.

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