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Women’s reservation to be a fillip for equality in politics

In 1992, the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution mandated one-third reservation of seats for women in Panchayati Raj institutions. The change was slow, but with a concerted effort by the government and civil society, incremental impact was seen across the country. A significant aspect of this change was not only an increased representation of women but a gradual shift in perspectives of both men and women, as to the value of a more gender diverse leadership. Today, several women contest — and win — from open category seats; making the grassroots governance systems in India, with over 1.3 million women, one of the most gender-balanced in the world.

PM Modi flashes victory sign with women MPs after the passage of women’s reservation bill in the Rajya Sabha on Sept 21 (PTI Photo)

Now, three decades later, we have a law that allows for similar reservations in Parliament. The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam is a significant step towards more gender equality in Indian politics and governance. But from the bottom up to the changes at the highest level of governance, we need to question if the numbers signify true significant change and if the system of women in policymaking in all spheres is moving forward.

Representation is a worldwide issue. As of Summer 2023, only 34 women serve as elected Heads of State or government and only 21% of the world’s ministers are women. The good news is the number of women ambassadors and mission heads has increased over time and now stands at 20.5%. In India, we lag behind the global average at about 12%. Our research at Kubernein Initiative shows that while the number of women at upper levels of India’s ministry of external affairs is low, at the middle level (division directors and undersecretaries) it is double at almost 30%, and approximately 45% in new entrants’ intake annually. These figures indicate the possibility of a drastic change in the country’s foreign policy leadership in the coming years.

The question then is whether numbers can be a true indicator of progress. Or, are there other nuances that must be understood to bring about a deeper change? Several countries that have embarked on a feminist foreign policy stress achieving representation, along with rights, as a key component of their new policy objectives. While representation is the basis of change, it must come with greater agency and a shift in structural and institutional thinking. The responsibility of this change cannot be only on women, instead, it must rest on the systems that are shaped by men and women. As foreign minister S Jaishankar said, in an interview with HT in August 2021, that it is about bringing a feminist perspective to foreign policy along with getting more women to engage with foreign policy issues. Our study of women heads of Indian missions shows that while their numbers might be low overall, they occupy strategic postings that are of significant value to India’s goals and ambitions. These include Pakistan, the UN-Permanent Mission of India, Germany, China, Netherlands, Brazil and others. Representation has to be accompanied by agency to bring long-term gains.

If true structural change is underway, it will result in the application of a more inclusive lens that benefits policy decisions as well; thus going beyond what is traditionally considered “women’s issues”, and rethinking the notions of hard and soft security. While India has made some strides, including through women’s peacekeeping forces and targeted programmes such as the ITEC that focus on promoting gender mainstreaming, it needs to be more focused and with a robust framework.

Indian women have been breaking barriers and creating new pathways for a more gender-intentional policy space in India, which was once referred to as a silent revolution. Former minister of external affairs, the late Sushma Swaraj, had a leadership style that was inclusive and feminist and brought an openness and accessibility to the elitist aura that is associated with the Indian Foreign Service. Her legacy continues with many officers and members carrying it forward. The political empowerment of women is also seen in the parliamentary sessions, where the latest data (16th Lok Sabha) shows that the level of engagement by women MPs was on par with male MPs – 218 to 219. The numbers from Parliament might be low, but the agency is significant and only likely to rise when the constitutional amendment comes into force.

Today’s complex and multilayered challenges cannot be solved unless the principles of equality and inclusion are integrated across the board along with equal representation of women and other underrepresented sections of society. India is nowhere near these goals, but our policies and focus showcase our intention and resolve to push for progressive change – the change in language from “development for women” to “women-led development” is significant.

Historically, women have been leading change in India, from the likes of Sarojini Naidu and Madam Cama during the freedom movement, to Indira Gandhi who was the first female prime minister, and Chokila Iyer, the first female foreign secretary. While it has been argued, perhaps rightly so, that many of these women came from a place of privilege and access, many did not. Even with access, being a woman in foreign policy, either within the system or working with the system, has never been an easy task. How we sustain the change that is underway and be a critical ally in making foreign policy more inclusive becomes a question for the future.

Ambika Vishwanath is the co-founder and director of Kubernein Initiative. The views expressed are personal.

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