The Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house of Parliament, has passed a bill to reserve one third of legislative seats for women.
The approval of the bill is the culmination of 14 years of campaigning since its first proposal in 1996. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that the bill represents a “historic step forward toward emancipation of Indian womanhood”.
Sonia Ghandi, President of the Congress party, described the bill as “a gift to the women of India”.
The bill was passed by an overwhelming majority of 186 to one after two days of chaotic voting. It had been hoped the bill would be approved on Monday, International Women’s Day, but proceedings were postponed when opponents tore up copies of the proposed legislation.
Arun Jaitley, leader of the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), denounced the uproar as “one of the most shameful moments in India’s parliamentary democracy”.
Opponents to the bill fear that it does not go far enough toward reducing social inequalities. They argue that competition for remaining seats will be intensified at the expense of lower castes, ethnic minorities, and Muslims, whose representation will all be reduced.
Lalu Prasad Yadav, leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal Party, voiced his opposition, saying: “Give reservation to poor India, to original India. Ninety percent of the population is deprived in India.”
Panchayats, the local governing bodies, already allocate one-third of governing seats to women, however, much needs to be done to increase women’s political participation.
Although there have been several high-profile female politicians, such as former Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, India is 99th in the world for female MP representation. There are just 21 women in the 233-member upper house, while of the 545-member lower house, only 59 are women.
The approval of the bill coincides with a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report on Asia-Pacific gender inequalities released the same week which highlights discrimination faced by women.
Brinda Karat, the leader of the Communist Party, expressed her hope that the bill would improve the situation of India’s women, saying that they are “still caught in a culture prison”.
Singh acknowledged the problems faced by women, saying: “Women are facing discrimination at home, there is domestic violence, unequal access to health and education. This has to end.”
Under India’s largely patriarchal culture, a traditional preference for male children means that female foeticide is a widespread problem. Skewed sex ratios in certain areas have resulted in the trafficking of female brides. Women also suffer disproportionately in access to education. The national literacy rate is 55 percent for women compared to 77 percent for men.
The bill will now go to the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, where it is thought likely to pass, and must then be agreed to in 15 out of 28 of India’s states before becoming law.
“Women have been waiting 62 years for this moment,” said Congress Party MP Jayanthi Natarayan. Women all over India are celebrating this historic move forward for female emancipation.