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A victory for India's women

Soutik Biswas | 15:25 UK time, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Indian womenHistory is full of delicious ironies. The only person who supported reserving seats for women in parliament during the making of India's constitution was a man. RK Chaudhury made a curious pitch, with a touch of misogyny:

"I think it would be wise to provide for a women's constituency. When a woman asks for something, as we know, it is easy to get it and give it to her; but when she does not ask for anything in particular it becomes very difficult to find out what she wants. If you give them a special constituency they can have their scramble and fight there among themselves without coming into the general constituency. Otherwise we may at times feel weak and yield in their favour and give them seats which they are not entitled to."

The women railed against reservations. Constituent Assembly member Renuka Roy said Indian women "have been fundamentally opposed to special privileges and reservations". Her colleague Hansa Mehta rejected reservations, saying what women wanted was "social justice, economic justice and political justice".

Over half a century later, the wheel has turned full circle.

So when a landmark bill reserving a third of seats for women in parliament and state legislative assemblies was passed in the upper house after stiff resistance by a small group of socialist MPs, it was a historic moment for the world's largest democracy. Analysts reckon this is politically as significant as the introduction of communal electorates in 1909, and reserving seats for the "depressed" in 1932. But more than anything, it is a crowning achievement for India's women.

Despite critics who say such quotas are a blow to meritocracy, this affirmative action has to be applauded. In India's largely patriarchal society, women have borne the brunt of neglect, discrimination and violence. Some of it - like female foeticide leading to skewed sex ratios in some of the most prosperous states - is abominable. Things are changing, but the way India sometimes treats its women is a national shame.

Despite comprising nearly half of India's population, only 54% of women are literate, compared with more than 76% of men. At least 4.5 million girls are out of primary school, nearly double the number of boys. Far too many women still die during childbirth - India's maternal mortality rate, according to the World Bank, is about 450 per 100,000 live births.Indian women taxi drivers

Also, with barely 10% of its parliamentary seats held by women, India needs to play catch up. Its neighbours fare much better - Bangladesh reserves 15% of its parliamentary seats for women, Pakistan 30% and Afghanistan, after its new constitution, more than 27%.

Sure, there's still a long way to go for Indian women. Nobody is saying that bringing more women into parliament will change things overnight. Indian politics is plagued by nepotism and the unhealthy influence of big money - there are allegations of party tickets being regularly sold to the highest bidders. But studies of India's village councils and municipalities - where a third of the seats are already reserved for women - have found that increased political representation of women leads to more investment in health and education, less corruption and more altruism.

I remember the sneering men when I was reporting a story on newly-elected women in the village councils many years ago. Most of them said the women would end up as their proxies. But times have changed, and most elected women do not do their husband's or relatives' bidding any longer. India has a controversial record on affirmative action, but this is one move which should be celebrated by all.

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