Lethbridge Herald: Women gaining from political reforms in India
Posting Date: 5 May 04
Author(s): Dave Sulz, Lethbridge Herald
Women gaining from political reforms in India
By DAVE SULZ
March 18, 2004-Reforms in India designed to give women at all levels of society a stronger voice in grassroots government are accomplishing what they set out to do, says a worker with South Asia Partnership Canada.
“All around, it’s been quite a success,” said Veena Gokhale, who spoke at a forum Wednesday at the University of Lethbridge on the topic of women in local government.
Two Constitutional amendments passed by India in 1992-93 paved the way for what Gokhale calls “a kind of silent revolution.”
The amendments provided for 33 per cent of seats at three levels of local government to be reserved for women. As a result, an estimated one million women in India were drawn into local politics in each of the two election terms since 1992.
More significantly, Gokhale noted, the reforms applied to all caste levels, giving women at even the lowest stratum of Indian society an opportunity to take an active role in democracy.
The 73rd Constitutional amendment, she added, has been the more effective of the two since it affected local government at the village and town level.
“Seventy per cent of the country is still rural,” Gokhale said.
Indian women have embraced the opportunity to help shape their communities from within the political arena.
“It has been quite impressive how women who never had any exposure to politics have, in fact, come into public life and learned about politics,” said Gokhale, adding some have even gone on to earn unreserved seats in their second terms in
Indian women bring a different approach to local government than do their male counterparts, in Gokhale’s view.
“They seem to be more interested in basic issues than men,” she said. “Men are more into infrastructure.”
Going hand in hand with women’s greater political voice is the fact literacy among India’s female population is on the rise. Though the literacy rate among women is still at just 54 per cent (based on 2000 figures), Gokhale noted it is up from 1991 levels.
While she added the increase of women in politics is undoubtedly a factor in improved literacy rates, “There are a lot of new ideas and changes coming into these villages anyway. It’s a combination of factors.”
But Gokhale stressed the move toward political gender equity in India or other South Asian countries cannot be accomplished without first creating an “enabling environment.”
Education is a key component in laying the foundation for such change, she added, and often that involves countering negative male attitudes.
That was the case in Sri Lanka, where South Asia Partnership Canada has been working to further the cause of gender equity.
Initially, “men were really negative about it,” said Gokhale. But eight months later, “there was quite a change in the attitude of men. They understood why it was important.”
Gokhale said having a defined number of reserved political seats for women was needed in India in order to produce a reasonable level of female participation in government. She thinks a quota system could work in Canada, too, where she says political participation by women is still not what it could be.
“Local government is a very good entry level for women,” she said. “They’re more comfortable with it.”
Gokhale, whose visit was arranged by the USC Canada Prairie office, also spoke Wednesday at Kainai High School and Red Crow College on the Blood Reserve. She will meet today with local women in government and leadership.
© 2004 The Lethbridge Herald. All rights reserved. This article is published on SAP Canada’s web site with permission of The Lethbridge Herald.