India passes law reserving onethird of chamber seats for women

New Delhi | The New York Times

Indian parliamentarians approved this Thursday (21) a law that reserves a third of the seats in the lower house of Parliament the equivalent of the Chamber of Deputies in Brazil and in state parliaments for women in order to strengthen gender equality. However, the measure will not be valid in the 2024 elections.

The law was passed by both houses of parliament after two days of discussions. To come into force, it must be supported by half of the 28 state parliaments. But as representatives of various parties, from the ruling party to the opposition, argued in their favor, there is an expectation that the approval will be repeated at the state level.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the passage of the law “a golden moment in India’s history” aimed at enabling “greater participation of women in our political process.”

The new rule does not apply to the upper house of parliament which is equivalent to the Brazilian Senate. In this case, legislators are elected by members of state legislatures rather than by popular vote.

There was dissatisfaction that the update would not come into effect in 2024. “Women have waited patiently for this bill,” said Sonia Gandhi, a prominent figure in local politics and leader of the opposition Indian National Congress Party. “But now our women have to wait. How many more years?”

Almost half of India’s 950 million registered voters are women, but they make up only 15% of Parliament and just 10% of representatives in state legislatures. The global average for women’s participation in the legislature is 26%.

The largest number of female MPs entered the lower house of parliament in 2019, when 78 women were elected from a total of 543 seats.

For decades, local governments have promised fairer representation for women. The attempt to make this a reality was met with resistance from leaders of various parties, with some claiming that women were not yet ready to govern.

Narendra Modi is popular with female voters and wants to send a signal to them, says political scientist Neerja Chowdhury. But he also wants to give people time to “get used to the idea.” “In this way the resistance is weakened,” he says.

Other analysts say the government could increase the number of seats in the legislature after next year’s general election to ease the impact on male politicians.

The last time India conducted a census in 2011, the next one was supposed to be in 2021 but it was postponed due to the Covid pandemic. No date has been set for the next census.

The idea of ​​reserving a third of seats for women was introduced into local politics in 1992 when the measure was tested in cities and towns. But the effort has been complicated by accusations that women were only being used to win elections while men still managed daytoday affairs.

Over the years, other efforts at national and regional levels to introduce a bill on reservation of seats for women failed. But the approval of the project in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, this Wednesday (20th) had a clear majority only two of those present voted against it. A day later, on Thursday, the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, also approved the bill.

The project also calls for 33% of the 131 seats already reserved for people from marginalized communities to be given to women from the same groups.

Safina Baig, a local politician from north Kashmir, said women from marginalized communities, including Muslims, were reluctant to enter politics for decades because the idea of ​​reserving seats for them was seen as a threat to men.

“This law will break the glass ceiling,” he said. “When will we leave our fears behind? We may not even need this law in 20 years.”