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  Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar  
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Women's Bill of rights
  By Virginia Saldanha  
  THE passage of the Women's Reservation Bill by the Upper House of parliament in India is a small but nonetheless significant step for the realization of women's political rights.

As the dust and excitement over the passage of the bill past its first hurdle settles, its flaws are coming into sharper focus. What is described as a fatal flaw is the principle of reservation based on rotation of constituencies reserved for women in every election.

Long standing members of parliament could be uprooted from a constituency they have carefully nursed over the years. It will not allow women candidates to build their credibility in any one constituency. Women would always be pitched against women and 33 per cent would be a capped number of women present in parliament and legislative bodies.

Another major concern has been voiced by those representing an important section of the population coming under the scheduled castes, tribes and other backward classes, as well as the Muslim electorate who already have reservations in parliament. (Only SC and ST categories get the benefit of reservation -- Editor)

They object that the bill obliges them to accommodate women in 33 per cent of their current reserved seats. They demand an allotment of additional reservations for women falling in these categories to be included in the bill.

The opposition is now wary of the political mileage received by the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, especially the Congress party, with the passage of the bill in the Upper House the day after International Women's Day.

Political parties that supported the bill in the Upper House will probably not support it in the Lower House without some more drama and changes to eliminate the two major flaws.

While politicians play their games, women have to seize the opportunity of the moment and try to move ahead. The ball is now in our court!

Taking up the challenge

When the idea of reservation was first mooted, there was a fear that not having enough competent women to enter the election fray, parties would install female proxies who are relatives of party members.

Given the socialization of women in India, it is possible that such women would never think of opposing their husbands or other male relatives when it comes to taking a stand on issues concerning women. So reservation of seats for women would not really benefit women.

In India, many women have died from discriminatory treatment in health care, nutrition access or pure neglect.

When the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution Act 1992, was introduced, providing reservation to women in all the three tiers of the panchayat (local self-government), there was much skepticism about how this would work.

The same fear of men operating as women's proxies was voiced.

But it was the women's groups/organizations that took up the challenge and traveled extensively to the villages of India to train these illiterate women in their roles as panchayat members and leaders.

Today the many success stories of change and development brought about by these women have silenced the cynics.

The recent United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report released on the occasion of International Women's Day 2010 reveals that India stands 99th in the world in women's participation in politics, behind its neighbors Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The report reveals that China and India together account for more than 85 million of the nearly 100 million "missing" women estimated to have died from discriminatory treatment in health care, nutrition access or pure neglect ―- or because they were never born in the first place.

It concluded that "pervasive gender inequality remains a barrier to progress, justice and social stability, and deprives the region of a significant source of human potential."

Women's perspectives in governance

To bring about change in the reality of women in India, it is imperative that women's perspectives are reflected in all aspects of governance.

Therefore the urgency of inducting more women who can operate autonomously in their own right cannot be over emphasized. To achieve this, women's organizations in the country have to lobby and put pressure on political parties to reserve 33 per cent of the seats they are likely to contest for women.

In this way, women would have the opportunity to gain not just 33 per cent but a higher number of seats in decision-making bodies in government.

It has been proven time and again that women have a higher win-ability rate. Studies have shown that women's participation has brought about greater transparency in local self-governments, and women are more honest and hard working. This has raised their credibility in political participation.

It is now time for women's groups/organizations to step in and train women to take up the responsibility of becoming elected representatives of women in India.

The bill has a long, tumultuous and stormy journey yet through the Lower House and the state legislatures before it is sent to the president for assent.

Women have to facilitate this journey with serious lobbying to make the bill viable to bring in independent thinking women who will represent women's concerns.

Many Catholic women express the hope that the Church follows the example of the government in including women in decision-making bodies as well. Perhaps we have to work using the newly released Gender Policy of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India to this end. (UCAN)
Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the FABC Office of Laity and family
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