The Women's Reservation Bill And Empowerment

March 07, 2010
Sandeep Bansal

After nearly 15 years when the Woman's reservation bill was first discussed, it looks set to be passed in the Rajya Sabha. This is my second post on this issue. There were some broad questions that came to mind. I have tried to answer each of them in this post.

  • Do we need reservation for women?

  • Is reservation really needed at the highest level?

  • Are reservations really going to make any difference? 

  • Do we need sub-quotas?

Do we need reservation for women?

A lot has already been written in the mainstream media about the importance that gender equality and empowerment of women plays in the overall development of any society. So I do not wish to repeat what has already been said and to a large extent well understood as well. Empowering women in a society where they have been treated like doormats for centuries is not an easy task. There is bound to be a internal resistance.

Moreover how do we achieve it within the constraints that democracy poses us.China had a cultural revolution from 1966-78, which was imposed on the entire population and was not at all peaceful. In India, any acceptable change has to be brought in an extremely careful manner.

Therefore reservation is one way to empower women. Since 1993, 1/3rd of the seats in panchayats have been reserved for women. This has been referred to as "the greatest social experiment ever". Upon adding the numbers, there are more women elected representatives in India than the rest of the world.

Skeptics might argue that it is still the men who take most of the decisions and women are mere proxies. Most probably it is true. But at least it has brought some amount change in the general attitude of the people towards women. This has got them an entry point, something that would not have been possible without reservation. Changing the rural mindset is not easy. A young boy in a remote village grows watching his father ill-treat his mother. He begins view this as acceptable and is more likely to do the same when he grows up. With such a system in place, it would at least stop such outdated ideas from percolating to the next generation.

Today there are a large number of NGOs that are helping women sarpanches in performing their duties These sarpanches are slowly making their presence felt. They known to focus much more on basic issues like drinking water, sanitation and education. They are much more honest. Since then, the reservations for women have been increased to 50%. I would go on to suggest that this number should be further increased to 75-100% in areas such as Haryana and some part of Punjab where Gender ratios are extremely poor and female infanticide is prevalent.

Moreover, reservation is important because it has been observed that once the seat is dereserved, almost 40% of woman choose not to contest. India's poor record on HDI index can expect to receive a boost in the long run. A professor(with over 25 years of teaching experience) of mine was once discussing this issue. He recalled, how over all these years the psyche of female students changed. While female students of the 80's and 90's would be vocal and aggressive about their rights, the present day female students almost expect equality.As they say, this is how democracy works, slowly.

Is reservation really needed at the highest level?
Reservations at the bottom is needed to bring about social change but is it really needed at the top. Or should merit prevail as we should be more bothered about who is more qualified to lead the country?

India's biggest strength is its democracy and diversity. The idea of India is unique because of its unity in diversity. It has been a tradition in India since the very beginning to have representations of all communities and regions. So all Union Cabinets formed till date have ensured that all communities are well represented. With its abysmally low 10% of elected women representative doesn't goes well with its idea of World's Largest democracy.

"Ninety countries have some kind of quota..That's half the countries of the world. On one level you might have a political party adopting its own informal quota—in the UK —on the other level you can have a legislative quota. You can see combination of those in different countries." (Source)

One of the major reasons why women are so under-represented is because they have their family responsibilities. This has been well recognized by nearly half of the world and it is time that we also consider this option seriously. Let us not forget that even in the best and most admired companies in the world, the female representation in the boardrooms is extremely low despite good gender ratios at lower levels. The most important reason for this that is again the family responsibilities. In something as important as nation building, it is important to give women their due representation.

Are reservations really going to make any difference? 
Reservations are not a panacea and mere reservation is not going to solve everything. Furthermore, just looking around at women politicians Most of them are from political families. Women Empowerment does not means election of such women from political families. In fact such reservations could reduce merit. Wives, daughters, mothers, daughters-in-laws of politicians could be running the show. Another option is that a certain tickets from political parties are reserved for women. The counter-argument given to this suggestion is that women shall be given only losing seats.

Another risk is that this reservation may extend to perpetuity. The caste based reservations introduced in 1950 were supposed to last only 10 years. They have been extended regularly. It is quite possible that the women reservation might take a similar course. Presently this reservation has been made for 15 years, but most probably it shall be there for a long time. In my opinion, there should be a clear road-map to gradually reduce the % of seats reserved for women to around 15%. This would make a balance between merit and social inclusion.

At this point of time, it is impossible to predict whether reservations can bring about any major difference.

Do we need sub-quotas?

Some of the parties like JD(U) and RJD are calling sub-quota for minorities and OBC's. Even though reservations are supposed to eliminate differences, they actually end up doing exactly the opposite. Caste based reservations are a classic example of the same. Reservations based on religion is therefore a dangerous territory.

However, this suggestion mustn't be rejected outright without examining whether there is a need for such a reservation. There is no doubt that women across all communities face numerous hurdles to rise. However, it is incorrect to assume  that this is homogeneous across all communities.Women in some communities face much more hurdles than other because some communities are more orthodox than the others. The following statistics clearly indicate this.

                                                                              (Source: 1, 2)

So while women reservations bill will benefit the women in SC's and ST's, Muslims and OBC women are not likely to benefit much and their representation in Parliament is likely to remain low. For e.g., presently out of 543 members in Lok Sabha, there are only 3 Women Muslim members. If one tries to think of prominent active Women Muslim Politicians, the only name that comes to mind is Mehbooba Mufti. But even she comes from a Political family and she is more likely to take up issues on Kashmir rather the empowerment of Muslim Women.

Furthermore, reservations for OBC's and Muslim women is not easy because there aren't any seats reserved for these communities. Moreover, Muslim population is varies across the country and hence the formula cannot apply across all states. One possible solution is increasing number of seats in Rajya Sabha and nominating members from these communities. Another important thing is that with 33% reservation, the total reserved seats would go upto 48% (22.5%+33%-(22.5/3)). Any further increase to reservation would mean that less than 50% seats are available in the unreserved category.

While the real empowerment of Women can take place at the grassroots level, women leadership across all communities needs to be created at the highest level so that they can take up women issues. Therefore, I believe there is a need to examine the feasibility of sub-quotas within quotas.


There is an old adage, when you educate a man you educate an individual when you educate a woman you educate a whole family. However, reservation is an easy shortcut. Without proper backup steps, it is unlikely to make any significant impact.

Happy Woman's Day

A management professional.... interested in exploring views of fellow netizens through blogs. I read more than 30 blogs on diverse topics regularly. My personal blog is at http://sandywriter.blogspot.com/.
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The Women's Reservation Bill And Empowerment


Author: Sandeep Bansal


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