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Where Are The Women When It Comes To Policy-Making In India?

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By Manuraj Shunmugasundaram:

Every passing year, on International Women’s Day, there is a renewed call to legislate the Women’s Reservation Bill to enable the election of women in legislative assemblies and the Parliament. Such calls are aptly justified by data – both anecdotal and empirical – to suggest that India has failed to address the role of gender in policy making.

In spite of efforts to increase the number of women representatives in local governance, successive governments have done little to build capacity or provide support systems to ensure the fulfillment of the core objectives of increased gender participation.

Despite making up nearly 50% of the world’s population, women only hold around 22.5% of public offices. If one looks at the data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union regarding the percentage of women in the Parliament, India (with 11.8%) is ranked 147 out of 193 countries. Countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kenya and South Sudan boast of a greater percentage of women representatives in their parliaments. Only three countries have more than 50% representation of women – Bolivia, Cuba and Rwanda.

The Rwanda Model

Rwanda presents an interesting case study because the nation came out of one of the worst civil wars in 1994, when the number of female parliamentarians was 17%.

The real success of the Rwanda model, however, can be seen from the gradual increase in women representatives – 48% in 2003, 56% in 2008 and a present strength of 64%. The Constitution was amended in 2003 to provide for a minimum 30% quota for women in all decision-making bodies, including the Parliament and other government agencies. There is even a Gender Monitoring Office which is tasked with monitoring, advising and advocating for gender equality in all institutions in the country.

However, the role played by Rwanda Women Parliamentary Forum (RWPF) is extremely crucial in achieving this phenomenal outcome. The RWPF was set up in 1996 as a consultative mechanism for facilitating gender integration within the Parliament. One of the key strategic axes of the RWPF relates to the training of parliamentarians on gender analysis in the budget examination, budgetary control and government action. The RWPF is also involved in the regular monitoring and control of the application of gender-sensitive laws.

In stark contrast, the majority of decisions pertaining to safety and security of women taken by the Union Council of Ministers or the Standing Committee for Home Affairs or the Parliament of India lack adequate women representation.

Despite inspiring examples it can learn from, India continues to face a severe shortage of women in policy-making sectors. (Representative image. Photo by Manoj Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

India’s Takeaways

Though the Parliament of India has a Committee for Empowerment of Women, it is not much more than mere tokenism. The committee has a limited mandate and hardly goes beyond filing standard reports and suggesting minor improvements to existing women welfare programmes.

Here, the first takeaway is that the committee should be revamped along the lines of the RWPF and be provided a constitutional mandate to look into the gender policy of every major governmental action. After this, the Parliament must legislate a Women Reservation Bill to effectively increase the gender representation across the highest legislative bodies in the country.

Secondly, Section 149 of the Companies Act requires women to be included in the board of directors of companies. However, a recent study by Deloitte has shown that only 12% of the boards are filled with women representatives. The private sector is rife with gender bias, including allegations of a culture of sexual harassment and silence around it. Only strong women leaders can empower women working in the private labour market – and therefore, the private sector, including non-profit organisations, must introspect about the lack of gender parity at the leadership level.

Finally, the National Commission for Women, a statutory body that plays an advisory role to the Government of India, must be expanded to include women from the development sector, private sector and various regions of the country. It must function as a truly representative apex body for all issues related to gender parity. The National Commission for Women must also work to recommend the adoption of gender-sensitive laws and take the lead on studying the best international practices.

Role Of Philanthropy And The Non-Profit Sector

The three takeaways suggested above are for the legislative, private and the executive spheres, respectively. However, the non-profit sector may perhaps have the most impact if we are to go by the example of EMILY’s List.

EMILY’s List is described as an American Political Action Committee. It supports and funds women candidates who are Democratic and pro-choice. Over a 33-year period, it has raised over $500 million and helped elect more than 900 women, which includes 23 senators and 12 governors.

EMILY’s List claims to have endorsed every single Latina, African American and Asian American Democratic Congresswoman currently serving in the United States’ Congress. But their work does not stop at endorsing and funding top-tier candidates alone. The ‘Run to Win’ training courses are run online which help women who want to run for any elected political office. Since 1985, they have trained nearly 10,000 women.

In her book, Ellen Malcolm, the founder of EMILY’s List says that “creating progressive policies and promoting them can be incredibly valuable. But those policies will never be implemented unless enough politicians are elected who support them.”

Though it is imperative that the government and private sectors introspect as to whether existing institutions are allowing women to make public policies, the real solutions may ultimately come from philanthropy and the non-profit sector – through community participation, organisation and mobilisation, as seen in the case of EMILY’s List.

This article was originally published on India Development Review. You can view it here.

About the author: Manuraj is a lawyer with the firm Ganesan & Manuraj Advocate and is also a media spokesperson for the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) party. He has worked as a Parliamentary Advisor for the DMK for 5 years.


Featured image used for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Manoj Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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