On Tuesday, India's upper house of parliament passed the Women's Reservation Bill, which would amend the constitution in order to set aside a 33% quota for women in India's federal and state assemblies. This contentious bill, which was first introduced nearly fifteen years ago, still needs to pass the lower house of parliament and pass through 15 of 28 state assemblies in order to take effect.
Grumbles abound; some fear that these reserved positions will be allocated only to already privileged women, arguing that Muslim, Dalit, and otherwise disadvantaged women should have particular guarantees of representation. Supporters of the bill say that it will work to protect these disadvantaged groups, and in any case, moving beyond the current 11% representation of women in the lower house of parliament seems a great step forward. (In the U.S., women make up 16.8% of the House of Representatives, 17% of the Senate, and 24.4% of state legislatures.) Others express the concern that, added to the 22.5% of parliament that's already reserved for disadvantaged castes and tribes, this would leave 55% of the seats in India's legislature subject to quotas.
Some argue that the reservations simply won't advance women, as powerful men will just get their wives and daughters elected as proxies. This claim is belied by the 33% reservations for women that already exist at the panchayat, or local council level, to which a million women are elected every five years -- the largest participation of women in government in the world (in raw numbers, of course, not percentages; Rwanda, as we've posted, wins the latter prize, with women making up 56.3% of the lower house of parliament and 34.6% of the upper house). The Economist makes a more compelling argument against the bill's effectiveness, noting that it will cover a different tranche of seats in three successive parliamentary terms and will then expire. This fractured application and short lifespan will make it difficult for women and men alike to get re-elected, thereby eliminating incentives to work hard on behalf of their constituencies.
Despite the bill's flaws, we know that women will not get a seat at the table without a reservation. And in India, where women face harms ranging from sex-selective abortion to dowry death, the need for representation is urgent and vital. The maintenance of India's vibrant democracy demands no less. In the words of Sonia Gandhi as she faced down one of the bill's opponents, “Your wife has been chief minister. You have seven daughters. What’s their view on the bill?” 'Nuff said.