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Will Women’s Reservation Bill lead to empowerment?

opinionWill Women’s Reservation Bill lead to empowerment?

Scholars observe that power is at the root of empowerment.

Recently, the Lok Sabha (LS) and Rajya Sabha (RS), both passed Women’s Reservation Bill 2023 (128th Constitutional Amendment Bill) or Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam. The bill reserves one-third of the seats in Lok Sabha, state legislative Assemblies and the Delhi Assembly. This will also apply to the seats reserved for SCs (Scheduled Castes) and STs (Scheduled Tribes) in the Lok Sabha and the state legislatures. There are 82 women members in the Lok Sabha (15.2%) and 31 in the Rajya Sabha (13%).While the number has increased significantly since the 1st Lok Sabha (5%) but is still far lower than in many countries. According to recent data by UN Women, Rwanda (61%), Cuba (53%), Nicaragua (52%) are the top three countries in women representation. Bangladesh (21%) and Pakistan (20%) too are ahead of India in case of female representation. But will representation lead to women empowerment without really changing the socio-economic and ideological contours of society? Are women in Rwanda and Pakistan really empowered?

The UN International Women’s Decade (1976-85), which led to three UN conferences in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985) incorporated and mainstreamed gender concerns. Caroline Moser (1993) maps five distinct approaches—welfare, equity, anti-poverty, efficiency and empowerment, which reflect policy evolution in terms of the ability to meet those practical needs of women that require urgent attention (such as employment, health services and water supply) and women’s more strategic needs which must be met to change their subordinate status in society, such as legal rights, gender based division of labour and domestic violence. The Sustainable Development Goals (created with significant input and engagement from several civil society feminist groups from around the world) adopted by UN Member States in 2015, set a 2030 deadline for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. Gender is woven throughout the SDGs which is at the intersection of economic, social and environmental issues.
The theories of justice as evidenced in the work of John Rawls, and Robert Nozick have constantly engaged in how justice can be best established through reordering of social and economic arrangements. During the same period, feminist scholarship has proposed a radically new approach to analysing social and political institutions based on the precept that personal and political relations are highly interdependent. Susan Moller Okin argues that gender should be an important component of contemporary theories of justice. These theories “are centrally concerned with whether, how and why persons should be treated differently from one another”. She defines gender as institutionalized differences between sexes. Chief among these differences is the division of labour in the family, in which women have the role of primary parent and homemaker, while men have the role of primary breadwinner. These roles are imbibed primarily due to patterns of socialization. The differential roles result in unequal distribution of important social goods such as work (paid and unpaid) power, authority, opportunities for realising the best self. This has an impact on both physical, social and economic security resulting in vulnerability.

Feminist justice theorists have particularly engaged with the concept of empowerment which can be defined as a “process which can enhance the ability of disadvantaged individuals or groups to challenge and change existing power relationships that place them in subordinate economic, social, and political positions”. Noted feminist scholar, Srilata Batliwala (1994) saw the concept of women’s empowerment as the process of challenging existing power relations and of gaining greater control over the sources of power. According to her, since empowerment is both a process and the result of that process, “the goals of women’s empowerment are to challenge patriarchal ideology, to transform the structures and institutions that reinforce and perpetuate gender discrimination and social equality and to enable poor women to gain access to and control of both material and informational sources”.
Scholars observe that power is at the root of the empowerment. Power operates in a number of different ways such as:

  • Power over: This power involves either/or a relationship of domination/subordination. It is based ultimately on socially sanctioned threats of violence and intimation and requires a constant vigilance to maintain. It also invites active and passive resistance.
  • Power to: This power relates to having decision making authority, power to solve problems and can be creative and enabling.
  • Power with: This involves people organising with a common purpose or common understanding to achieve collective goals.
  • Power within: This power refers to self-confidence, self-awareness and assertiveness. Thus individuals can recognise through analysing their experience how power operates in their lives and gain the confidence to act to influence and change this.
    Feminists have been particularly concerned with “power within” since it signifies the person’s capacity to combat “power over”, makes use of “power with” and thereby generates “the power to” take action.
    Can the Women’s Reservation Bill lead to “power within”?
    Views are personal.

  • Anshu Srivastava is an Associate Professor at National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA), New Delhi.

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