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A ‘Man’s Parliament’ Striving For An Inclusive India

Context

In 1952, when the Indian Republic held its first Parliamentary session, 39 strong, intelligent, and passionate women leaders sat in the hallowed halls of power, challenging a centuries old tide of men’s dominance over the polity.

Relevance

GS-I: Role of Women and Women’s Organization, Population and Associated Issues, Poverty and Developmental issues, Urbanization, their problems and their remedies.

Dimensions of the Article

  • A slide from the initial years
  • Not gender neutral
  • In other countries
  • Moving ahead
  • Way Forward

A slide from the initial years

  • At a time when women formed only 1.7% of the total members of the United States Congress and 1.1% of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, India was leading the way in the fight towards more inclusive world democracies with 5.5% women representation.
  • The struggle for India’s Independence can never be detached from the contributions of thousands of our women across profession, class, caste, and religion.
  • But 70 years hence, it seems we have strayed from that path. Despite a woman Prime Minister, a President, and a relatively higher percentage of women parliamentarians when compared to some of the other mature democracies in the past, struggle with inclusivity has not eased.
  • The number of women representatives is still considerably small, but even more subtly, Parliament as a workspace continues to be built exclusively for men.
  • The Supreme Court judgment (National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India, 2014) on gender identity has given the movement for inclusivity a greater impetus.
  • Parliament, being the pinnacle of law-making and the symbolic centre of our democratic aspirations, must reflect this change too.

Not gender neutral

  • Absence of gender-neutral language. For instance, after 75 years of Independence, and ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’, Parliament often refers to women in leadership positions as Chairmen and party men. In the Rajya Sabha, the Rules of Procedure continue to refer to the Vice-President of India as the ex-officio Chairman, stemming from the lack of gender-neutral language.
  • The alarming degree of usage of masculine pronouns assumes a power structure biased towards men. This tends to manifest itself in parliamentary debates
  • The issue further extends to law-making. In the last decade, there have hardly been any gender-neutral Acts. Acts have made references to women not as leaders or professionals (such as policemen), but usually as victims of crimes.
  • The root of such instances lies with a gender-conforming Constitution.
  • In its present state, the Constitution reinforces historical stereotypes that women and transgender people cannot be in leadership positions
  • In the past, amendments have been brought about to make documents gender neutral.
  • In 2014, under the leadership of the then Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Meira Kumar, the Rules of Procedure of the Lok Sabha were made entirely gender neutral.
  • Despite certain course corrections, both Houses of Parliament and Central Ministries have failed in one common aspect. In a compilation of ministerial replies to questions from the 17th Lok Sabha so far for 75 women Parliamentarians, it was found that 84% of the answers that used salutations (sir/ madam) referred to women Parliamentarians as ‘sir’.

In other countries

  • Internationally, even mature democracies that legalised universal suffrage after India, such as Canada (1960 for Aboriginal women), Australia (1962 for Indigenous women),
  • and the United States (1965 for women of African-American descent), have now taken concrete measures towards gender inclusive legislation and communication.
  • When Parliament and government offices reinforce gender biases in their communication, stereotypical language in reference to women and transgender people becomes more palatable to the rest of the country.
  • The country’s leaders must send the right message for citizens to follow. They can and must begin with an amendment to the Constitution and the entire reservoir of laws.

Moving ahead

  • Once the language is corrected, the entire country, including Parliament, can focus on the deeper issues of the aspirations and growth of its woman workforce.
  • In 2018, the U.K. Parliament conducted a gender audit to understand its culture, environment, and policies as a workspace.
  • It opens questions about whether there is a single, transparent appointment and promotion process for women staff in Parliament, and whether their professional growth is being hindered by other issues such as harassment and domestic responsibilities.

Way Forward

In the 21st century, when people of all genders are leading the world with compassion, strength and ambitions, the Indian Parliament needs to reflect on its standing. Recognition and correction of past errors through amendments to rulebooks, laws, and the Constitution are just starting points, and must lead to sensitivity, equal treatment, and appreciation for the people of India, regardless of gender.

Source – The Hindu


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November 2022
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