By Ashok Sharma
The Associated Press
NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s government will present a bill to lawmakers on March 8 aimed at empowering the nation’s often-marginalized women by reserving one-third of legislative seats for them, a governing party spokesman said.
The plan has faced strong opposition since it was first proposed more than a decade ago, with many political leaders worried that their male-dominated parties would lose seats under a female quota system.
But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, which was re-elected last year, is confident that it has enough support this time and presented the bill to Parliament on International Women’s Day.
Congress party spokesman Manish Tewari said on March 7 that he foresaw no issues standing in its way. It was debated in the upper house of Parliament the following day and was later sent to the lower house, he said.
The bill is an attempt to correct some of the historical mistreatment of women. Most Indian women receive far less education than men and are weighed down by illiteracy, poverty, and low social status. For the millions working in fields, factories, and sweatshops for minimal wages, political choices are often still made by their husbands or male community leaders.
The bill would raise the number of female lawmakers in the 545-seat lower house to 181, from the current 59. It would nearly quadruple the number of women in the 250-seat upper house. The bill would also apply to state legislatures.
Sushma Swaraj, a leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, and Birnda Karat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said their parties already have asked their lawmakers to vote for the legislation.
Small socialist groups oppose the bill, demanding that a portion of the women’s quota be set aside for minorities and lower castes, which have been socially and economically deprived as well.
In the past, India has had only a few powerful women leaders and — as in other South Asian countries — they often entered office because they were related to powerful men.
India’s only female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was the daughter of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Elected in 1966, she shattered many barriers in Indian society in her nearly 16 years in office, but did little to empower other women.
In recent years, however, women have made some strong inroads in the nation’s political elite. A woman occupies the mainly ceremonial post of the president and another is speaker of Parliament’s powerful lower house.
Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, wife of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — and also Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law — is the leader of the Congress party.
A+bout 40 percent of elected representatives in village councils are women, Prime Minister Singh said. ♦