It will warm the cockles of many hearts to hear that India`s Upper House has overwhelmingly passed a progressive bill that would reserve 33 per cent of legislative seats for women. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the Rajya Sabha vote `a historic step forward towards the emancipation of Indian womanhood`. We could not agree with him more!
One may argue that women deserve not just one third of seats but many more as they constitute nearly one half of India`s one billion people. However, something, they say, is better than nothing.
The bill has yet to be passed by the Lok Sabha (which will take it up next week for voting) and approved by at least 15 of 28 states for it to become law. However, the Rajya Sabha vote (186-1) is half the battle and with the BJP and Communists having pledged their support for the bill, it is very likely to be ratified with ease. Once it becomes law, the number of women in the 545-member Lok Sabha will increase to 181 from a meagre 56 seats at present. There will also be a fourfold increase in their number in the Upper House.
India`s `reservation bill` is worthy of emulation across the Palk Strait. Sri Lanka had only 13 women (5.8 per cent of 225 seats) in its last Parliament, though they account for about 50% of the country`s population. They richly deserve representation proportionate to their numbers. For, as we pointed out in this column on Monday, it is women who keep Sri Lanka`s economy going. We said: `Women`s sweat is the lifeblood of Sri Lanka`s economy, which is dependent mainly on remittances, apparels, tea and rubber for survival. Of the export earnings of Rs. 813,911 mn, apparels, tea and rubber constitute 46.21%, 16.73% and 1.39% respectively. In the apparel sector women account for over 90% of the work force. Remittances amount to Rs. 381,319 mn The plantation sector is dominated by women. They also account for more than one half of Sri Lanka`s 1.8 million expatriate workers who constitute about 20 per cent of the country`s work force. Over fifty per cent of migrant workers have been reduced to semi-slavery as housemaids.`
A story related by a radio announcer on the recent International Women`s Day comes to mind. He said during a visit to Israel, he had, in the course of a conversation with an Israeli man, felt so ashamed that he wished the ground would swallow him up. He had been asked about Sri Lanka`s main sources of income, and on being told that remittance from housemaids in the Middle East was one of them, the Israelite had asked in utter surprise, `What are Sri Lankan men doing?` `Boozing and politicking` should be the answer, says a wag.
Parliamentary representation alone would not help improve women`s lot, as we argued on Monday. We have had women in politics even as heads of State and powerful ministers. Their contribution to the emancipation of women in this country was woefully inadequate, if not nil. However, political empowerment is a prerequisite for safeguarding the rights of women and main political parties are duty bound to increase women`s participation in politics. Allocating minute quotas for female candidates is not the way to tackle the issue. The SLFP, UNP and other mainstream parties must not only field more and more female candidates but ensure that a reasonable number of seats in Local Government Institutions, Provincial Councils and Parliament are reserved for women. Let the Indian example be followed.