Mumbai: India stood 149th in a 2019 list of 193 countries ranked by the percentage of elected women representatives in their national parliaments, trailing Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and dropping three places since 2018.

The issue of women’s representation in legislatures is gaining traction, as India gears up for its 17th general elections in April 2019: Congress chief Rahul Gandhi has promised 33% reservation for women in the parliament and state assemblies if his party comes to power; the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha will field women candidates in 33% of Lok Sabha seats; and 41% of nominees in the list of candidates released by Bengal’s Trinamool Congress are women.

There are 66 women MPs in Lok Sabha (parliament’s lower house), occupying 12.6% of its 524 seats, while the world average was 24.3% on January 1, 2019).

In more than six decades till 2014, as women’s share in India’s population remained at 48.5%, the share of women MPs increased eight percentage points to 12.6% between the first (1952) and the 16th Lok Sabha (2014). There was one woman MP for about eight million Indian women in 1952. By 2014 this was one for more than 9 million women--equivalent to the population of Austria.

Rwanda--currently ranked first in the world--has 49 women MPs in its 80-seat lower house or one woman MP for 111,000 females, according to data released on January 1, 2019 by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), a multilateral agency.

The share of women in national parliaments increased by nearly one percentage point to 24.3 per cent in 2018, noted IPU’s press statement on the yearly report released on March 5, 2019. The global share of women in parliament continues to rise; it stood at 18.3% in 2008 and 11.3% in 1995, the report noted.

In the list are 50 countries that held elections in 2018.

“More women in parliament means better, stronger and more representative democracies that work for all the people,” said IPU president and Mexican MP, Gabriela Cuevas Barron, in a press release. “The 1% increase we saw in 2018 represents a small improvement on women's parliamentary representation. This means we are still a long way to achieving global gender parity. For that reason, we urge for greater political will in adopting well-designed quotas and electoral systems that eliminate any legal barrier that might be hindering the opportunities for women to enter parliament.”

There are three African--Rwanda, Namibia and South Africa--and no Asian countries in the top 10 list of countries with significant female representation in parliaments, as on January 1, 2019.

Female representation in state assemblies even lower than parliament

While female representation is low in the Lok Sabha, representation in state assemblies is even lower. Over five years to 2017, female representation in state assemblies was the highest in Bihar, Haryana and Rajasthan (14%), according to the 2017 data released by the ministry of statistics and programme implementation. Mizoram, Nagaland and Puducherry had no elected women representatives in their assemblies.

The national average of women in state assemblies and state councils (upper house of the state legislatures) was 9% and 5%, respectively.

Low representation of women in the legislature can be traced to the patriarchal structure of Indian politics, noted a January 2011 analysis by the Economic and Political Weekly. Lack of reservation for women in parliament and state assemblies, unwillingness among political parties to give tickets to women, a general lack of awareness of electoral politics among women and the lack of family support -- these were some of the specific reasons for the gender skew, the analysis had said.

Source: Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, 2017; Economic and Political Weekly, 2011

There has been no progress on the bill to reserve a third of the seats in Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies for women (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment or the women’s reservation bill) though it was introduced a decade ago.

Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal government introduced a resolution in the state legislative assembly proposing 33% reservation for women in parliament and legislative assemblies, The Indian Express reported on November 20, 2018.

“No household, no society, no state, no country has ever moved forward without empowering its women,” Patnaik was quoted as having said on November 20, 2018.

Elected women representatives in the Odisha state assembly are two percentage points lower than the national average of 9%. The assembly unanimously passed the resolution.

Women representatives bring economic growth to their constituencies

There is evidence of significantly higher growth in economic activity in constituencies that elect women, noted a 2018 study by the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research.

It examined data for 4,265 state assembly constituencies--over two decades t0 2012--where the “share of state legislative assembly seats won by women increased from about 4.5% to close to 8%” and focussed on the increase of luminosity, or night light, in these constituencies as a proxy for economic activity.

Women legislators in India raised economic performance in their constituencies by about 1.8 percentage points per year more than male legislators, according to the study. “We estimate that women legislators in India raise luminosity growth in their constituencies by about 15 percentage points per annum more than male legislators,” the study noted.

While the number of women in parliament and state assemblies has not grown significantly, a third of seats have been reserved for women since 1993 in local governments, made possible by the 73rd and 74th amendment of the Constitution. That move led to a current national average of 44% of elected women representatives in panchayats (village councils).

Rajasthan, Uttarakhand have highest female representation in panchayats

As many as 14 states and union territories have 50% or more elected women representatives in panchayats, according to this reply to the Lok Sabha on April 5, 2018. Rajasthan and Uttarakhand have 56% representation, the highest in the country.

Source: Lok Sabha (unstarred Q No. 6343)

“Village councils in West Bengal reserved for women, on average, invested in nine more drinking water facilities and improved road conditions by 18%,” noted an October 2018 study on the impact of women’s reservation on policy making in villages of West Bengal and Rajasthan (conducted between 2000-2002) by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a research organisation.

The study found that women constituents were more concerned about issues like water supply and road connectivity than men. As many as 31% of women's complaints were about drinking water, and 31% were about road improvement in West Bengal, compared to 17 %and 25% of men's, respectively. In Rajasthan, 54% of women's complaints were about drinking water and 19% about welfare programmes compared to 43% and 3% of men's, respectively, according to the study.

Unlike West Bengal, women in Rajasthan complained less frequently about roads. Village councils reserved for women invested in 2.62 more drinking water facilities, on average, and made fewer improvements in road conditions, “leading to 8% deterioration”, added the study on impact on women’s reservation.

In other states, quotas led to improved child health and nutrition, increased female entrepreneurship and heightened police responsiveness to crimes against women, J-PAL reported.

In the 32 women-led panchayats IndiaSpend surveyed across six districts of Tamil Nadu for a five-part series, 30% women said they would like to contest the upcoming panchayat elections even when their seat was an unreserved one. Also, 15% women said they would like to enter mainstream electoral party politics if given a chance. Across districts women complained of patriarchal hostility and caste bias.

In their search for fresh candidates, political parties in Tamil Nadu tend to ignore the large pool of successful women panchayat leaders politics and those who do join active politics are rarely allowed to rise up the hierarchy, our investigations found.

(Paliath is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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