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India's upper house passes bill reserving a third of legislative seats for women

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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

NEW DELHI -- Indian lawmakers approved a historic bill Tuesday that would set aside one-third of all legislative seats for women, a move aimed at overturning six decades of male-dominated decision-making in this country.

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The bill, which drew fierce opposition before its passage in the upper house of parliament, would guarantee seats for women in the national legislature and all state assemblies in the world's largest democracy, where women have been largely kept on the sidelines of the legislative process.

The bill must be approved by the lower house of parliament. It is expected to pass, although analysts say opponents could use political maneuvers to delay the bill.

"This is a momentous development in the long journey of empowering our women. Women are facing discrimination at home. There is domestic violence, unequal access to health and education. This has to end," India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said after legislators approved the bill. The new quotas, he said, will be "living proof that the heart of Indian democracy is sound and is in the right place."

Women's representation in politics is not new to South Asia. Several nations, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, have elected women to their highest office. India elected Indira Gandhi as its only female prime minister four times between 1966 to 1984. But the region's women have lagged behind men in life expectancy, literacy and legal rights.

In its 2009 report on global gender disparities, the World Economic Forum ranked India 114th out of 134 countries. Gender bias is widely blamed for cases of female infanticide, which have worsened India's sex ratio to 933 women for every 1,000 men.

Advocates of the bill say greater female representation in Indian politics will help make women's issues a higher priority for policymakers. "Issues like female infanticide will no longer be seen as a soft subject but will become the core of the nation's political agenda," said Brinda Karat, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), during the debate in the upper house.

The passage of the Women's Reservation Bill was not without controversy. After it was tabled Monday, some lawmakers tore up copies, flung the shreds at the chairman of the upper house and shouted their objections.

Opponents objected to the bill because they said it lacked specific quotas for women from lower castes and religious minorities. Similar objections had held up the bill on three other occasions over the past 14 years.

"We are being unfairly defamed as anti-women. All we want is that the women from real India, like those toiling in the farms and villages, are brought forward," said one opponent, Laloo Prasad Yadav, leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal party.

Even some of Singh's allies opposed elements of the bill; their opposition could threaten the prime minister's coalition.

More than 55 percent of seats in the Indian parliament and state legislatures are blocked in quotas. Under the constitution, set-asides exist for lower castes and tribes. Still, many minority advocates fear that, when forced to vacate their seats, male politicians will field their wives and daughters to rule by dynastic proxy.

Female politicians have made steady gains in India. Women hold some of the country's highest offices, including that of its ceremonial president and of the speaker of the lower house of parliament. The ruling Congress Party is headed by a woman, as is the main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, in the lower house.

Village councils have 40 percent women's representation because of an earlier quota law.

"It is very appropriate that we are getting this law at this time because people's acceptance of women in leadership positions is better than it ever was," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, which trains women for leadership roles. "But what is more important is the big, big change in women's own expressions and aspirations in the new India."

Experts say the presence of women in parliament might not automatically lead to empowerment. An analysis of the performance of female members of the current parliament by PRS Legislative Research, an independent research group, finds that women asked fewer questions, moved fewer bills and participated in fewer debates than their male counterparts.


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