The lesson from the rest of the world is that seat reservation for women to merely increase their representation in the legislature will not do; they need to be empowered in the real sense.

During the debate in Parliament and outside over the Women's Reservation Bill, many people have referred to quota “success stories” worldwide -- proposing that India could gain from the experience of about 40 other countries that have enacted legislation on such reservation for women.

In fact, if India were to introduce such reservation by the 2014 general elections, the number of women elected to the Lok Sabha will rise three-fold from the present 59 to 181, and India's global position will move from the present 99th rank to the 18th rank. But, for many reasons the success stories referred to need to be studied further before deciding whether India will indeed benefit from emulating them.

The biggest marvel in women's representation has no doubt been Rwanda. It is one of the world's poorest countries, still wracked by the horrific genocide of 1994 that left dead about 800,000 people, mostly belonging to the Tutsi tribe. In 2003, Rwanda's new post-genocide Constitution mandated that 30 per cent of seats in Parliament would be kept for women. In fact, in the 2008 elections, Rwanda broke all records: it topped the world with 56.3 per cent women in the lower Chambre de Deputies. Thus it became the only country with more women than men as elected representatives.

In commending Rwanda for the remarkable feat, though, many tend to ignore the demographics — post-genocide, the population of its women was 70 per cent. Most of the ‘missing men' had been killed or fled the country. Even according to the latest survey, women constitute 53.5 per cent of the population. This is a figure that is far higher than that of South Asia, and even parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. The resultant increase in the number of women in positions of power may be explained in part this way.

Once they were elected in such heart-warmingly large numbers, though, Rwandan women deputies have often been criticised for not doing more on gender issues. In a study published by Oxford University Press in 2007, The Effect of Increased Women's Representation in Parliament: The Case of Rwanda, authors Devlin and Elgie have argued that they have succeeded in passing only one major piece of legislation in the past seven years that seeks the empowerment of women, compared to a slew of legislative measures relating to rape and sexual torture, mothers' rights and the quota for women itself, that were passed in the preceding seven years. Clearly, it is not enough for women to be elected to those positions, they need to be more vocal in order to bring about a change in conditions for the larger woman population.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the case of Pakistan -- a country that had a woman Prime Minister two decades ago. While in power, Benazir Bhutto was unable to overturn any of the controversial parts of the Hudood ordinance, including one that required rape victims to produce four male witnesses in support of their case, failing which they could be stoned for adultery. Since 2000, the National Assembly has mandated 17.5 per cent of the seats for women in the Assembly -- 60 of its 342-member strength. Yet, in 2009, when the government proposed to impose the tough Nizam e Adl Sharia ordinance for the Swat Valley -- that would, among other backward measures, keep girls out of school and women out of work -- none of the women in the Assembly was at the forefront to oppose it, with the exception perhaps of the outspoken Sherry Rehman.

One must remember that in Pakistan the women brought in through this quota are not actually elected -- every party is ‘given' a number of seats in proportion to the seats they win in the general elections, to which they nominate women. Given the sub-continental reality, these women tend not to represent the larger woman population. Instead, they “lock in” the seats for a handful of powerful families. Much as in India, the seats tend to go to the bahu-betis and other family members of established politicians and industrialists. In that sense, the fear in India of enforcing “women's-only” seats will encourage a sort of zenana section for women MPs who will only contest elections against other women.

Benazir Bhutto was not alone in the subcontinent -- that had four women heads of state long before many developed parts of the world: Indira Gandhi, Sri Lanka's Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga, and Bangladesh's Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. But all of them proved rather than being an exception to the rule. They ascended to power after the death of a powerful husband or father, and collectively presided over South Asia without significantly improving the figures for women's progress in terms of girl child enrolment in schools, maternal mortality, girl-boy malnutrition levels, and parity for women at work.

Afghanistan again bears out the experience of a country that on paper has reservations for women in Parliament, but where the measure does not translate into better living conditions for them in general. Seventy-seven of 252 seats in the Lower House (31 per cent) are reserved for women, along with 25 per cent of the provincial seats. Yet, maternal mortality rates remain the highest in Afghanistan compared to the rest of the region, and the girl child enrolment figures for school are amongst the lowest, with a higher incidence of violence against women each year. Ironically, the violence even means that many of the reserved seats remain vacant there: the Taliban continue to threaten women candidates, and several gutsy women have paid with their lives for attempting to enter Parliament.

Broad problem

The broad problem across all these countries is the same — it is one thing to get women into the corridors of power, it is quite another for them to change the lives of other women. Recognising this problem, a growing number of women's bodies worldwide are suggesting that political parties be mandated to allot 33 per cent of their ticket to women, rather than simply reserving seats for them, as this would prompt a “real change” in the mindset. Many European countries follow this model. Australia's Labour Party has come up with a unique formula to reserve the ticket for women:men:women and men in the ratio 40:40:20. This ensures that neither men nor women can corner more than 60 per cent of the positions, but leaves some flexibility to choose candidates by merit.

Even the newly released UNDP report on gender equality in Asia and the Pacific (Power, Voice and Rights, March 2010) calls seat reservations for women a “quick-fix” solution to increase their representation, but not a final tool of empowerment. While all the national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left must be complimented for coming together with the Congress and the rest of the United Progressive Alliance to push the Women's Reservation Bill through the Rajya Sabha, they must also answer why they have been unable to put up more women candidates in the past six decades of democracy. According to the Election Commission, of the 8,070 candidates fielded during the general elections in 2009, only 556 were women (6.9 per cent). Until that reality changes, a simple 33 per cent ‘presence' of women will not go beyond symbolism.

Once it does change, women can reasonably expect that besides holding up half the sky, they also hold complete control of their own destinies.

(Suhasini Haidar is Deputy Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN.)

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