India began its journey as a democratic republic on a hopeful footing — political equality between men and women was enshrined in the Constitution from the word go. Yet, our politics has ended up being disproportionately occupied by men. Against this background, the present moment, when the women’s reservation Bill, thus far stuck in limbo, has become a reality, is truly a historic one. While the lack of a clear timeline has detracted from the moment’s thrill, the promise and possibility it offers are momentous.
In 1997 (the year from when comparable global data is available), 7.2 per cent of Lok Sabha members were women. Today, that share has doubled to 15.2 per cent. While there is progress, it has not only been tardy but much slower than the global average. In the same period, the global share of women MPs has improved from 12 per cent to 26.7 per cent, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), a global organisation of national parliaments. As a result, while India ranked 94 among 179 countries in 1997, it has slipped several ranks in this period and is currently placed at the 141st position among 185 countries.
If the reservation envisaged by the Bill were to come into effect immediately, and this share was to jump to 33 per cent, we’d be ranked 54th, just below our neighbour Nepal. But as of now, we do not know when the Bill will come into effect. If it is going to take another decade or more, the 33 per cent quota is not likely to put us in the top 50 countries, or anywhere close.
India is not alone in its attempts to enable better political representation of women. What may seem like a radical move to us is a small step compared to the progress several other countries have made. Just this year, Sierra Leone held its first polls after a new law mandated parties to field a minimum of 30 per cent of women candidates, while Mongolia raised the candidate quota for women from 20 to 30 per cent.
In fact, 69 countries have some form of legislated candidate-level quotas for women in the lower (or single) house of Parliament, data compiled by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance shows. Another 30 countries reserve seats for women, as India is set to do.
Additionally, several countries have managed to ensure a healthier share of women even without legally-mandated quotas, because some or all political parties have voluntarily adopted policies to ensure fairer representation of women. Iceland, with 47.6 per cent of women MPs, is a case in point. In Australia, an IPU analysis observed that women’s share jumped by almost 8 percentage points in the 2022 election because several parties had voluntary quotas.
In its global analysis of parliamentary elections, year after year, IPU has found that electoral quotas for women make the most decisive difference to the share of women elected. However, it is crucial to remember that this is possible only if the quotas are implemented in the right spirit. When designed to just tick a box, they may not be able to do much.
For instance, in 2020, Kazakhstan introduced a 30 per cent quota for both women and the youth. Indeed, more women contested the following election in 2021, but thanks to a glaring design loophole, it made no difference to the number of women who got elected. On the other hand, in Mexico and Costa Rica, laws have been amended over the years to ensure that parties do not field women in seats they are likely to lose. They also need to ensure that not only is there parity on their candidate lists, but that the law is implemented in both letter and spirit. Today, both countries are ranked among the top 10 in the world on this metric. In fact, Mexico has parity in its parliament, while Costa Rica’s Parliament has 47.4 per cent women.
Of course, India’s quota policy and electoral system are different. However, reserving seats can have its challenges, such as the risk of becoming a ceiling rather than a floor. What makes a difference is the willingness of political parties and the vigilance of all stakeholders.
And it is here that India’s political parties have the most critical role to play. Their dismal record on this front speaks for itself. In all these years, there was nothing to stop them from putting forward more women candidates. Yet on average, only a tenth of the candidates contesting assembly polls in the last five years, and only between 6-9 per cent of the candidates in the Lok Sabha elections since 2000, have been women.
India has had a universal adult franchise since day zero. It also has among the highest representation rates of women at the local level and has seen women making it to the top rungs of various political hierarchies much before several other countries. It now has the opportunity and potential to set more inspiring precedents. It is high time that political parties did better on this front and helped the country realise that potential.
The writer works at CEDA, Ashoka University and was the author of the 2022 edition of IPU’s annual report on Women in Parliaments. Views expressed are personal.