Unfinished Business: Gender Inequality in India’s Parliament

Deepali Gaur Singh

Despite some progress in electing women, too few women legislators are getting elected, and India's Parliament remains dominated by men.

Indian political parties are
still not walking their talk. Judging by the statistics on the number of women candidates
who contested this general election, the Indian Parliament will, yet again, continue
as a male-dominated space.  And yet, the current Lok Sabha elections have
been a watershed in independent India as 58
women parliamentarians
will occupy seats in the Lower House – while an
increase of slightly over one per cent since the last elections – and the "ten
percent" mark appears to have finally been breached.

In the 1984 general election 44
women became parliamentarians
.  Two decades later, the 2004 general election
returned about the same number of women parliamentarians to the 14th
Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament), constituting a little over eight percent
of the total law makers elected.  The 13th Lok Sabha included the maximum of 49
women members, representing slightly over nine percent of the total strength of
543 members.  Going further back into time, the figures become even starker,
considering that 80 women were elected to power during the pre-independence
elections of 1937 conducted under the Government of India Act, of course with
reservation for women in place.

The truth is that in post-Independence India, when
it comes to parliamentary representation, women have never been able to get
close to the ten percent mark.  Despite Articles 325 and 326, guaranteeing gender
equality, the unequal representation of women in national political parties has
become a norm rather than an aberration.  Women’s role and prominence in the election process
and politics has been reduced to "mothers/daughters/wives of" – and sometimes
"sisters of" – contesting candidates during election campaigns trails. 

Women as candidates

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It’s ironic that in over six
decades since independence and 15 Lok Sabha elections, several of India’s most
important political parties, despite being represented by firebrand, outspoken
and often controversial women leaders, continue to field almost insignificant
numbers of women candidates during polls.  Consequently, women constitute a
miniscule minority of the Lok Sabha.  Unlike many of its global democratic
counterparts, India can boast of a woman prime minister just three decades into
independence and yet women’s presence amidst the political leadership remains
small.  In most cases women, more specifically wives,
have been used as mere pawns to fill up spaces made vacant by the husband’s
disqualification in the electoral process or from their political berths due to
various reasons, like pending or ongoing criminal cases.  So, once elected, the
wife is expected to be the willing puppet with the strings firmly attached to
the spouse’s fingertips.

What makes this kind of
representation even worse is that it flagrantly positions the wife as a mere
façade rather than a serious candidate – doing little for the cause of women
who are serious contenders. Fortunately, many such replacement
candidates-cum-wives actually lost the elections, pointing to a mandate on both
the criminal past of the male candidate and their take on their wives’ new
found status of political puppets.

Some women’s groups have
attempted to play an active role in the political process, like in the elections
of 1991. The Akhil Bharatiya Mahila Dal (All India Women’s Party), for
instance, promoted itself as India’s "first and only women’s party," even fielding
400 candidates, but soon disappeared without as much as a smudge on the
political landscape. The world’s largest democracy, as a consequence, functions
with roughly half its population continuing to remain under-represented in
mainstream politics.

This worrying downward spiral
is reflected in the number of women given contesting tickets across political
parties, which has dropped from 247 in the 13th General Elections to 177 in the
14th General Elections, a trend reflected in the representation even from major
political parties known for their vociferous claims of a commitment to an
agenda of women’s empowerment, who nonetheless fall short of actually nominating
women candidates to contest elections. Of the 1,715 candidates in the fray for the
first phase of polling in 124 Lok Sabha constituencies (held in mid-April)
there were just 122
women candidates
. The argument remains at the level of the hen and egg
debate. Even though there is no real evidence suggesting that women candidates
do any worse than their male counterparts during elections, women are often not
seen as "winnable" contenders, thus losing the battle even before making it to
the battle ground. But the argument is particularly weak in the case of the Indian
polity, where people traditionally have reflected a tendency to vote for parties
rather than individuals.

But the real reason for women
candidates’ marginalization is the use of "muscle power," both financial and
physical, that might contribute to keeping women out of actual politics. Contesting
an election, today, entails huge financial spending by candidates, an amount that
many women might find hard to raise themselves. And given the largely prevalent
traditional, patriarchal mindset they might find it harder to find backers
either.  Besides, with politics considered a brutal, dirty business, women are
rarely encouraged to be a part of the process.  Very often women visible in the
political process are those who already belong to family with an existing
political background. The fact is that their already prevalent lack of
visibility in the public sphere tends to get reflected in their visibility in
the political sphere.

Woman as a voter

In the world’s
largest democracy, women constitute a potential 340 million voters out of a
total electorate of approximately 710 million. And yet their strength in the
Lower House of Parliament constitutes a meagre 10.6 percent. Only recently, three
young women
topped the national competitive exams for the Indian
Administrative Services (IAS) that will place them in important bureaucratic
positions in the nation’s bureaucracy –  but their political masters are still going to
be predominantly men. And not to be missed here is the candidate who was placed
second – the only child of a farmer from Punjab
– one of the states notorious for sex selective abortions and a dismally low sex
ratio. Further statistics show that among the top 25 candidates, 40% are women,
clearly pointing to the fact that with the availability of equal opportunities comes
representation. What is also significant about the results of the 15th
Lok Sabha is that the states
of Punjab and Haryana
– both stigmatized by skewed sex ratios – have actually registered a two-fold increase
in the number of women Members of Parliament (MP) entering the LS this time. Six
women candidates have won from their respective constituencies.

Women have a
huge stake in any election. The passage of some women-specific laws shows the
difference women in critical ministerial positions can make on issues and challenges
facing women. Correspondingly, fewer women candidates also points to the fact
that women’s issues are not a priority even in election manifestoes, let alone
post-election. Women, so far, have not been taken as serious voters. It is
assumed that their vote is determined by the voting pattern of the family
patriarch or the spouse (and in some cases the personal charisma of the male
candidate!) but rarely are considered a serious political agenda. And this is
despite the fact that some recent studies have shown that women are at par with
men while excising voting rights. According to 2009 electoral polls, women
voters are in majority in six states of the country.

Women’s issues

India ranks 115th of 162 countries in terms
of gender development.  Lack of representation directly translates into a de-sensitized political leadership that is completely cut-off from the issues
facing half the population of the country.  It also results in disproportionately less legislation empowering women, delays in the passing of
laws pertaining to women and very often actual blockage of laws addressing
issues specific to women and girls, some deliberately and others out of a
complete lack of understanding of women’s issues.  It is against a culture of
violence against women, whether in regard to domestic violence, preference for
male children reflected in sex-selective abortions, or the selective allocation
of resources to girls, dowry-related violence amongst others that also
manifests itself in government policies towards women. Often decisions on
women’s issues are made by state level bureaucrats and Members of state
legislative assemblies (MLAs) who are predominantly male, with little concern, sympathy
or understanding for problems facing women.  Laws like equal property rights or a
tougher anti-Sati
for women have faced stiff opposition from various quarters before
being passed or blocked.  Can blatantly anti-women policies or regressive laws
pass through a Parliament which is adequately represented by women themselves?

Reservation of one-third seats in Parliament and state
assemblies for women, also referred to as the Women’s Reservation Bill, has been
resisted by mostly male Members of Parliament (MPs) since it was first
introduced in 1997. Those fervently opposing the bill believe that reservations
of 33 percent will only translate into bringing urban elite women into power.  While reservation
quotas like these rarely bring a homogenized representation, even if the
argument were justified, what it is suggesting is that Indian women should and would
rather continue to be represented by a heterogeneous political leadership
consisting of men than urban educated women.  What this argument, rather
mischievously, also does is pit women against men of the backward classes and
castes, bringing the argument of gender equality on a collision course with men
from marginalized groups.  Besides, the very treatment of the reservation bill is
proof of the fact that women’s interests can never be completely represented by
a group of men. Keeping women from policy-making positions and decisions only
propagates the gender subjugation agenda.  In 2008, the Bill was introduced in
the Upper House of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) after women MPs formed a human chain
around the law minister to enable him to do this. But the big question is
whether it will get passed in the Lower House and become the law of the land.

The Women’s Bill stands out as a perfect example of abundant rhetoric and scarce intent.
Quite ironically, the drop in women’s candidatures this year coincides with the
introduction of Women’s Reservation Bill which is on the agenda of the
forthcoming Lok Sabha.

In contrast, in 1993, India enacted the
93rd and 94th Constitutional Amendments
, reserving 33 percent of seats in
local bodies for women. The fears expressed over this amendment too had been
similar; that women would be mere puppets with family patriarchs – the
father-in-law or husband – pulling the strings of power. And while true in many
cases, today, both the emblematic and tangible value of having over a million
women running Panchayati Raj institutions makes a compelling case for the
women’s bill to address the poor legislative representation of women across the
country.  What the country needs is more women as lawmakers to help bring to the
political arena issues that are specific and critical to them to be able to
create an atmosphere of greater sensitization.  Despite a new Lok Sabha and painfully
small increase in women’s representaion since the last election Indian
democracy continues to be challenged by the unfinished agenda of women’s
political empowerment.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.

Culture & Conversation Family

‘Abortion and Parenting Needs Can Coexist’: A Q&A With Parker Dockray

Carole Joffe

"Why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place?"

In May 2015, the longstanding and well-regarded pregnancy support talkline Backline launched a new venture. The Oakland-based organization opened All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center, a Bloomington, Indiana, drop-in center that offers adoption information, abortion referrals, and parenting support. Its mission: to break down silos and show that it is possible to support all options and all families under one roof—even in red-state Indiana, where Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence signed one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.

To be sure, All-Options is hardly the first organization to point out the overlap between women terminating pregnancies and those continuing them. For years, the reproductive justice movement has insisted that the defense of abortion must be linked to a larger human rights framework that assures that all women have the right to have children and supportive conditions in which to parent them. More than 20 years ago, Rachel Atkins, then the director of the Vermont Women’s Center, famously described for a New York Times reporter the women in the center’s waiting room: “The country really suffers from thinking that there are two different kinds of women—women who have abortions and women who have babies. They’re the same women at different times.”

While this concept of linking the needs of all pregnant women—not just those seeking an abortion—is not new, there are actually remarkably few agencies that have put this insight into practice. So, more than a year after All-Options’ opening, Rewire checked in with Backline Executive Director Parker Dockray about the All-Options philosophy, the center’s local impact, and what others might consider if they are interested in creating similar programs.

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Rewire: What led you and Shelly Dodson (All-Options’ on-site director and an Indiana native) to create this organization?

PD: In both politics and practice, abortion is so often isolated and separated from other reproductive experiences. It’s incredibly hard to find organizations that provide parenting or pregnancy loss support, for example, and are also comfortable and competent in supporting people around abortion.

On the flip side, many abortion or family planning organizations don’t provide much support for women who want to continue a pregnancy or parents who are struggling to make ends meet. And yet we know that 60 percent of women having an abortion already have at least one child; in our daily lives, these issues are fundamentally connected. So why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place? That’s what All-Options is about.

We see the All-Options model as a game-changer not only for clients, but also for volunteers and community supporters. All-Options allows us to transcend the stale pro-choice/pro-life debate and invites people to be curious and compassionate about how abortion and parenting needs can coexist .… Our hope is that All-Options can be a catalyst for reproductive justice and help to build a movement that truly supports people in all their options and experiences.

Rewire: What has been the experience of your first year of operations?

PD: We’ve been blown away with the response from clients, volunteers, donors, and partner organizations …. In the past year, we’ve seen close to 600 people for 2,400 total visits. Most people initially come to All-Options—and keep coming back—for diapers and other parenting support. But we’ve also provided hundreds of free pregnancy tests, thousands of condoms, and more than $20,000 in abortion funding.

Our Hoosier Abortion Fund is the only community-based, statewide fund in Indiana and the first to join the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, we’ve been able to support 60 people in accessing abortion care in Indiana or neighboring states by contributing to their medical care or transportation expenses.

Rewire: Explain some more about the centrality of diaper giveaways in your program.

PD: Diaper need is one of the most prevalent yet invisible forms of poverty. Even though we knew that in theory, seeing so many families who are struggling to provide adequate diapers for their children has been heartbreaking. Many people are surprised to learn that federal programs like [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC] and food stamps can’t be used to pay for diapers. And most places that distribute diapers, including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), only give out five to ten diapers per week.

All-Options follows the recommendation of the National Diaper Bank Network in giving families a full pack of diapers each week. We’ve given out more than 4,000 packs (150,000 diapers) this year—and we still have 80 families on our waiting list! Trying to address this overwhelming need in a sustainable way is one of our biggest challenges.

Rewire: What kind of reception has All-Options had in the community? Have there been negative encounters with anti-choice groups?

PD: Diapers and abortion funding are the two pillars of our work. But diapers have been a critical entry point for us. We’ve gotten support and donations from local restaurants, elected officials, and sororities at Indiana University. We’ve been covered in the local press. Even the local CPC refers people to us for diapers! So it’s been an important way to build trust and visibility in the community because we are meeting a concrete need for local families.

While All-Options hasn’t necessarily become allies with places that are actively anti-abortion, we do get lots of referrals from places I might describe as “abortion-agnostic”—food banks, domestic violence agencies, or homeless shelters that do not have a position on abortion per se, but they want their clients to get nonjudgmental support for all their options and needs.

As we gain visibility and expand to new places, we know we may see more opposition. A few of our clients have expressed disapproval about our support of abortion, but more often they are surprised and curious. It’s just so unusual to find a place that offers you free diapers, baby clothes, condoms, and abortion referrals.

Rewire: What advice would you give to others who are interested in opening such an “all-options” venture in a conservative state?

PD: We are in a planning process right now to figure out how to best replicate and expand the centers starting in 2017. We know we want to open another center or two (or three), but a big part of our plan will be providing a toolkit and other resources to help people use the all-options approach.

The best advice we have is to start where you are. Who else is already doing this work locally, and how can you work together? If you are an abortion fund or clinic, how can you also support the parenting needs of the women you serve? Is there a diaper bank in your area that you could refer to or partner with? Could you give out new baby packages for people who are continuing a pregnancy or have a WIC eligibility worker on-site once a month? If you are involved with a childbirth or parenting organization, can you build a relationship with your local abortion fund?

How can you make it known that you are a safe space to discuss all options and experiences? How can you and your organization show up in your community for diaper need and abortion coverage and a living wage?

Help people connect the dots. That’s how we start to change the conversation and create support.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the spelling of Shelly Dodson’s name.


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