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Women yet to make presence felt in House

By Radha Venkatesan

CHENNAI, MARCH 7. In the 234-strong Tamil Nadu Assembly, they are just a sprinkling. Just as small as a cricket team. And perhaps as cool as our Indian cricket team. The 11 honourable elected women MLAs, including two lady Ministers, in the State Assembly are heard. Only at times, and not loudly either.

As the demand for 33 per cent reservation for women in the Legislatures and Parliament stridently continues, the performance of the women MLAs in the House may provide grist for the anti- quota lobby, fears Leader of the Opposition, Mr. S. Balakrishnan. And not without reasons.

A quick glance at the Assembly records certainly does not throw an exciting report card into the women MLAs' totebags. Of the nearly 200 special calling attention motions raised in the Tamil Nadu Assembly in the last four years, only three have been moved by the women MLAs. Even these did not concern women's issues.

And worse still, the three TMC lady MLAs, six from the ruling DMK and one nominated lady MLA have hardly moved a calling attention motion on matters of `urgent importance'. When the death of a Dalit girl Chitra, after police interrogation set off a furore in the city in November 1998, it was 10 male members who raised the issue in the House. And not the women members despite most of them being Dalits.

In 1996, reports of an alleged rape and murder of a teenaged girl in a women welfare centre in Kumbakonam exercised the Assembly, but the women members mostly remained silent. In the same year, the Assembly sentenced eight women to simple imprisonment for throwing bits of paper into the House, and once again, no woman MLA pleaded for them.

Neither did they lend their voice when issues of public concern like hike in prices of milk, PDS rice and bus fare or the lynching of a suspected AIDS victim by a mob in Poonamallee and hooch tragedies rocked the Assembly subsequently.

And their nonchalance continued unfazed when various significant Bills came up for heated discussions. While 10 male members spoke, not a single woman MLA participated in the debate on the eve-teasing prohibition Bill passed in 1998, after a chilling case of eve-teasing claimed the life of a city college girl Sarika Shah.

Earlier, in 1996, the Bill against ragging following the murder of a student in Annamalai University too had little contribution from the women members.

Ask them about their low-key presence, the ruling party lady members quickly retort, ``when our Government is fulfilling all the wishes of the people, why should we raise issues in the Assembly''.

Also as DMK MLA, Mrs. R. Saraswathy, says since the Speaker, Mr. P. T. R. Palanivel Rajan, believes in allotting more time for the Opposition, the ruling party members don't get ``adequate opportunities''.

However, the TMC women MLAs offer a different reason- gender bias. ``There is a bias against women within the party. They don't want me to make it to the newspaper headlines, so, they deny me opportunities to speak'', fumes seven-time MLA Mrs. A. S. Ponnammal, who had raised over 100 questions in the previous Assembly.

The TMC leader, Mr. Balakrishnan, counters, ``there is no bias. The (TMC) women MLAs don't prepare well, they lack concentration and talk irrelevant things. Despite their drawbacks, we encourage them to speak''. In fact, one of the three TMC women MLAs has spoken just once in the Assembly.

The Social Welfare Minister, Ms. Sarguna Pandian, feels that both the Speaker and the Chief Minister do give special encouragement for women MLAs. ``For the first time, the women MLAs were given opportunities to initiate discussion on the Governor's address in the last two years''. However, the women MLAs reluctantly agree that they are ``under-performing''. ``We have a long way to go'', concedes Dr. Kanchana Kamalanathan of the DMK. As the Opposition leader says, ``it is not enough to provide reservation for women, we have to equip them for efficient performance''.

From symbolic representation, move on to `more substantive' performance.

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