Political parties have made a plethora of promises during the campaign for the 2014 general elections for the betterment of women and their pledge to reserve a third of seats in parliament and state legislators to women. But, surprisingly, when it comes to giving them an opportunity to contest the polls, the parties seem to have baulked at the idea.
"Women lose out when they are measured by the yardstick of winability. That is the argument which is given most of the time," senior BJP leader and party spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman told IANS.
She's not far off the mark. An analysis of the candidates fielded in the first five of the 10-phased polls shows that the number of women fielded by even the major political parties like the Congress and the BJP is woefully inadequate.
The Congress has fielded only 22 women among the 193 candidates it has named so far and the BJP only 10 women among its 202 candidates for the first five phases of the elections, said the NGO Association for Democratic Reforms, which works for accountability in the political process.
The Aam Admi Party (AAP), which made a debut at last year's Delhi assembly elections, has also fallen short, with just 32 women candidates among the 200 it has fielded in the first five phases.
Sitharaman contended that it was high time the winability argument was questioned. "I see no other way than bringing in the women's reservation bill to answer this problem," she said of the bill the Rajya Sabha had passed but which lapsed as the Lok Sabha could not clear it during the pendency of the 15th Lok Sabha.
CPI-M politburo member and Rajya Sabha member Brinda Karat agreed. "Women's representation is not adequate, though it is better than before. Proper representation for women will only come around if the women's reservation bill is brought in," Karat told IANS.
Had it cleared parliament, the bill, which sought to reserve 33 percent of seats in parliament and state assemblies for women, would have set aside 179 of the Lok Sabha's 543 seats - two members are nominated - for women in this election.
According to data released by Empowering India portal, a non-profit organization giving information on elections, the percentage of women winning in elections is far higher than men as in the 2009 national polls. The success rate for women candidates was 11 percent as compared to six percent for men.
Despite this, parties are still unwilling to field more women candidates.
Peeved at the low number of women candidates fielded, women's groups are questioning the very call to women to vote.
"When our presence is not considered important in parliament, when decisions about our future are taken without consulting us, why should we cast our votes to elect another group of politicians who do not believe in the cause of women's empowerment in this country?" asked Ranjana Kumari, Director of the Centre for Social Research, while speaking to IANS.
"The Indian constitution promulgated in 1950 promised to secure for all its citizens justice, social, economic and political, and equality of status and of opportunity. Despite this, women in India continue to be grossly under-represented in the legislatures, both at the national and the state levels," she said.
The first Lok Sabha in 1952 witnessed 4.4 percent representation of women in the lower house of parliament which could only increase to a meagre 10.9 percent in the 15th Lok Sabha in 2009.
Representation of women in the Lok Sabha is still much lower than the world average of 20 percent. The figure is as high as 63 percent in Rwanda, 48 percent in Cuba, 45 percent in Sweden, 44 percent in South Africa and 42 percent in Finland and as low as 0.3 percent in Yemen.
"The number of female representatives in legislative bodies in most of the states in India is also below the 20 percent mark, reflecting a pan-Indian gender exclusion from electoral participation and quality representation," Ranjana Kumari noted.
(Sreeparna Chakravarty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>)