Women's Day: Why so few women in India's state legislatures?

Nagaland broke the "bamboo ceiling" by electing female lawmakers, with one of them becoming the state's first female cabinet minister

Women's Day: Why so few women in India's state legislatures?
Women's Day: Why so few women in India's state legislatures?


India's northeastern state of Nagaland has passed an equality landmark this week by swearing in Salhoutuonuo Kruse, from the regional NDPP party, as its first woman minister.

Kruse is one of only two women in the state's 60-seat state legislature. She and her party colleague Hekani Jakhalu broke another taboo last week by becoming first female lawmakers in the state assembly.

Nagaland-based journalist Monalisa Changkija called it the breaking of the "bamboo ceiling."

Following the election of Jakhalu and Kruse, Changkija wrote in her paper Nagaland Page that "the floodgate (…) in the decision-making at numerous levels has been opened for generations of women to come."

But despite the good news from Nagaland, the level of female representation in India's politics is dire.

While female lawmakers hold less than 10% of seats in most state assemblies, the state of Mizoram and the union territory of Puducherry have none.

According to data collated by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which measures women's political participation, India ranks at 141 globally with only 15.1% women representation in the lower and 13.8% in the upper houses of parliament, as of February 2023.

Patriarchy holds sway in politics

Incidentally, Mizoram, which has no female lawmakers in its assembly, boasts the second-highest level of female literacy (89.4%) in India.

Baryl Vanneihsangi Tlau, an elected member of the Aizawl Municipal Corporation in Mizoram, said the high literacy rate does not reflect the political reality, despite being a matter of pride.

She said the patriarchal system deems that political institutions should be reserved for men only.

"The unwritten law states that women belong within the four walls, while men dictate what happens in and outside the walls," Baryl Tlau said.

Political experts say patriarchal norms have the ultimate sway over legislative representation.

"Politics is a reflection of society and the patriarchy in society is even more amplified in politics," said Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Political Shakti, a group campaigning for more women lawmakers.

Krishnaswamy pointed out that politics is a zero-sum game, and for that reason men refuse to share political power, or make room for women legislators. "This means that women's voices go unheard," she said.

'Women are capable of so much more'

Baryl Tlau said that women need to be made aware that politics is not a male dominion alone and "both men and women have their places in it."

Activists say that boosting women's representation in politics will require a multi-faceted approach that involves changing societal attitudes, implementing policies and empowering women to take on leadership roles.

Political parties and advocacy groups can help by providing women with training, mentorship and resources to support their campaigns. There is also a need to address inherent gender biases that may discourage women from running for office. This is especially true in the nomination process. Baryl Tlau said that political parties often parrot the line that they tried to nominate a woman electoral candidate but couldn't find "a capable one."

Nagaland reporter Changkija comments on the same issue in her piece, asking for a "more inclusive ticket distribution."

"So much more is expected of women than men simply because women are capable of so much more," she wrote.

New push for Women's Reservation Bill

Tara Krishnaswamy notes the importance of laws that ensure more women in politics.

"Many of the countries that rank above ours in the IPU rankings have some form of reservations for women — either for nominations for candidacy or for seats ­— to the highest legislative houses," said Krishnaswamy.

In 2010, India's upper house of parliament passed the Women's Reservation Bill (WRB) ensuring the reservation of one-third of the seats in the country's national and state legislatures for women.

The bill encountered significant resistance then, particularly from regional caste-based parties, who contended that it would only benefit privileged women and not those from marginalized communities.

Critics even threatened to withdraw support for the then Congress Party-led coalition government if the bill was passed. But since the lawmakers in the lower house never voted on it, the bill has lapsed, and has not been reintroduced in parliament.

Now, K Kavitha, a political leader from the southern state of Telangana, is set to stage a day-long hunger strike in New Delhi this week to demand the introduction of the bill during the current parliamentary session.

Kavitha points out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi can pass the bill without opposition due to the majority his party enjoys in the legislature.

Making sure everyone is included

One of the primary arguments against the WRB, especially by regional political parties, is that the bill will adversely impact marginalized communities, especially women.

Krishnaswamy dismissed this notion and said the Supreme Court of India has said WRB is a horizontal reservation and not vertical reservation.

In India, vertical reservations refer to the reservation system for Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC). On the other hand, horizontal reservations cut through the vertical categories and provide benefits to specific groups such as women, veterans, individuals with disabilities, and the transgender community.

Thus, the 33% reservation for women that the WRB calls for can be implemented to include women from marginalized groups.

"Women's reservation must be inclusive of caste, religion, gender, all different kinds of women that we have in India, the strata of women that we have in India. So, it must be inclusive," Krishnaswamy said. "It is not the reservation… that is going to create exclusivity. It is the mindset of the men that is the problem."

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

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