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Parliaments Through The Ages: Where Are The Missing Women?

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Did the women in your family vote in the last General Election? Was their voting choice affected by the family opinion? Do you know equal rights did not exist from the beginning of time? Let’s take you on the journey of women’s political empowerment in India and across the world.

A landmark legislation on September 19, 1893, in New Zealand, led to women getting the right to vote for the first time in a self-governing country. It took nine years for another country, Australia, to grant Women Suffrage in 1902.

The first European country to join this movement was Finland; it was also the first to grant women the right to stand in Parliament. Norway and Denmark followed these countries and the suffrage went on to spread around the world. The most recent country to grant women suffrage in 2011 was Saudi Arabia. Vatican City now remains the only country not to have given its women the right to vote.

Coming closer to home, in India during the British Raj, a majority of men and women did not have the right to vote. The first to grant suffrage to women in India was Madras in 1921, yet this was restricted to propertied men and women. Voting rights for all only came in 1950 after Independence from the British. All this reflects that this was a long and hard struggle for women around the globe. Think about being a woman in those times, not having a say on policies and decisions directly affecting you, being practically voiceless, unheard and uncared for. Suffrage and the right to vote was only the first step to political participation for women. There were still many roadblocks ahead in our way.

Representation of women was the next step on the ladder. In 1993, the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution led to a 33% reservation of seats in local self-government institutions for them in creating 1,000,000 seats for women. This came after 46 years of independence, countless women empowerment movements and protests. Some states even increased the reservation to 40%–50%, which brought a lot of strength to women in terms of participation. For many years women had next to no representation, half of the population—completely neglected. This is deeply saddening.

At the national level, the representation of women is in a terrible state. India has only 12% of representation for women in the Lok Sabha. Pakistan has 21% participation of women in its, which is way more than India. Out of 190 nations, India ranked 153 in the percentage of women in the lower house of world Parliaments. This reflects very poorly on our mindset and the extent to which patriarchy has a foothold in our country.

The Women’s Reservation Bill (108th Amendment) is pending in the Lok Sabha for the past 11 years. The bill gives 33% reservation to women in the lower house. In an online survey amongst students, a variety of opinions arose on the same topic. Many felt that votes drive decisions in the Indian Parliament and passing this bill might hurt a lot of sentiments and result in loss of vote. Another popular belief found in the survey was that this was due to lack of concern by the male-dominated Parliament members, which was a misogynistic and patriarchal community. People strongly felt that consciously or unconsciously, there is a belief in our society that women are inferior to men, and the position of men will be in jeopardy if women’s voices are heard.

Perhaps it was also not passed because of the predominance of male MPs who have the stereotypical notion of gender roles and that the political area isn’t safe for women as compared to the “safe” four walls of their homes. A lot of students pointed out those tedious procedures, and implementation issues also contributed to the same. There were also people who did not support these reservations because they were already a plethora of reservations existing in our country, reducing chances and opportunities for the common man. People were also of the opinion that in today’s day and age when the concept of feminism and equality hold a lot of value, providing reservation to one gender is not a viable option.

Gender quotas can create long-term economic and social benefits to the society and the country at large. Research indicates that having a female legislator has a substantial impact on policy priorities. There is evidence that as more women are elected to office, there is an increase in policy making that focuses on quality of life and reflects the priorities of families, women, and ethnic and racial minorities. The positive impact of women in politics cannot be denied.

Kofi Annan, the seventh secretary-general of the United Nations, noted, “Study after study has taught us, there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity or to reduce child and maternal mortality. No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation.” Madeleine Albright, the first female US Secretary of State, has stated, “The world is wasting a precious resource in the dramatic underrepresentation of women in leadership positions, often resulting in the exclusion of women’s talents and skills in political life.”

Depending on age, education, rural or urban living, women can have very different life experiences that lead to different priorities and opinions—agreed that not every woman elected to parliament will place women’s issues or rights at the forefront of her agenda. Women’s representation is not the only factor, but it is a crucial one for the development of inclusive democracies.

Male and female MPs must work together in order to solve the kaleidoscope of problems in our country. To meet development goals and build strong, progressive nations, women must be made a part of the change; they must be encouraged, empowered and supported in becoming extraordinary political and community leaders.

About the author:

 Ananya Bathla is a student of the High School Achievers Program conducted by Young Leaders for Active Citizenship (YLAC). The High School Achievers Program identifies promising high schoolers and builds their capacity to lead change. This study was undertaken as part of the 2019 Delhi edition of the program.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this study are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views of YLAC as an organization

Bibliography

Narayan Ramachandran. (2019, February 19). Retrieved from Livemint: https://www.livemint.com/opinion/columns/opinion-india-needs-more-women-parliamentarians-1550514703491.html

Sandra Pepera. (2018, February 28). Retrieved from Women Deliver: https://womendeliver.org/2018/why-women-in-politics/

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

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.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

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.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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