Why it’s still so hard to get Women’s Bill passed

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C P Surendran

The Congress Party president, Mr Rahul Gandhi, has written to the Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, urging the BJP leader to present and ensure the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Monsoon Session of Parliament that begins on Wednesday.
Mr Gandhi has offered his party’s “unconditional support” to the bill which seeks to reseve 33 per cent of seats in the state Assemblies and in Parliament for women. The bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha by the Congress-led UPA government in May 2008 and was passed. Both the Congress and the BJP had voted for the bill. But it lapsed as it was not passed in the Lok Sabha in time. The bill will now have to be brought back into both Houses.
Mr Narendra Modi is all in favour of the bill. Time and again he has stressed on the importance of the role of women in public affairs. That position has not changed. On the contrary, the BJP in particular and political parties in general will be under pressure against the gaining global perception of nearly half a billion Indian women being suppressed in all walks of life. Recently, a journal, The Economist, ran a cover story, “How India Fails its Women”. The report quoted statistics to show how millions of women, if added to India’s male-dominated workforce, will change the face of the country, and how it will do wonders to its GDP.
It’s a little puzzling to this writer that if the ruling party, the BJP, and the main Opposition party, the Congress, are in agreement on the need to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill, where’s the problem? In the Rajya Sabha, at the time of the presenting the bill, regional parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party had opposed the bill. The Trinamul Congress had abstained and the Bahujan Samaj Party had walked out.
The reasons are not far to seek — these parties are run like fiefdoms, no matter whether the leader is male or female. Their politics is only that of power.
From 2008 to 2018, women’s awareness of their role and rights have made great progress. More than the economy, the culture has changed. Indeed, when the bill was first presented in the Rajya Sabha, a phenomenal star like Ms Hima Das, who won the under-20 world 400m track event on Friday in Finland, was only 10 years. At 18, she can now vote both with her legs and hands. In the last eight years, what Ms Das has done is to run against all obstacles and get her gold medal. She is a representative of the new Indian woman — rural, defiant, confident, and a product of a poor joint family run by males. Ms Das is the new culture.
The nationwide picture for women is not far different from the one Ms Das has run against. Which is why when the male-dominated political parties like the BJP or the Congress advocate women’s representation in Parliament, the situation gets a little murky. Because if everyone is for women, who is against them?
Just about everyone, I would think. The leaders of the party may be genuine believers in women’s rights. But from the grassroots up, the party structures are male-cultured. Political work, unlike in an advanced society in the West, is a way of gathering food, clothes and shelter. The traditional male accepts his role — from the caveman times, no doubt — as the family provider unquestioningly. With the risks of that role come the crumbs of privilege and power. In short, a sense of self-importance.
It is the status we attach to the role playing of the provider that substantially stands in the way of the magical figure of 33 per cent. If the women earn, and the men sit back and do the family chores, and the neighbour doesn’t gossip, we will have really arrived.
Neither in the private sector nor in public services is 33 per cent a probable figure as of now. To quote The Economist: “Yet far from joining the labour force, women have been falling away at an alarming pace. The female employment rate in India, counting both the formal and informal economy, has tumbled from an already-low 35 per cent in 2005 to just 26 per cent now. In that time, the economy has more than doubled in size and the number of working-age women has grown by a quarter, to 470 million. Yet nearly 10 million fewer women are in jobs. A rise in female employment rates to the male level would provide India with an extra 235 million workers, more than the European Union has of either gender, and more than enough to fill all the factories in the rest of Asia.”
The Monsoon Session of Parliament is likely to be dominated by the Women’s Bill. It might be a worthwhile idea to infuse into the debate guest voices from the villages of India and hear what they have to say.
About figuring in Parliament. About their fathers and husbands. About women like men. About feeding families. About running for gold. About running for elections.