An equitable distribution of women reservation in India
Women constitute half of the society throughout the globe and so is the case in India too. But majority of women in our country, burdened with domestic responsibilities, remain illiterate, exploited and dominated by men. Women's best interests and priorities are thus neglected in a male dominated patriarchal society of which the present parliament is an extension. With growing literacy levels, exposure and economic strengthening, in recent years, women have become concious of the stigmatized life they are leading and also of their under-representation in elected decision making bodies.
Presence of women in such bodies will make a qualitative difference in increasing the empathy for their concerns. So to undo centuries of discrimination and exploitation and redress gender imbalances some sort of reservation or affirmative action is needed.The understanding of such affirmations, reservation, includes notions such as equality of opportunity, social justice, positive or protective discrimination, compensatory discrimination and so on. Reservation is not thus an insidious and invidious discrimination but is a benign, positive, acceptable and necessary discrimination to tilt the balance in favor of hitherto historically deprived, oppressed and repressed classes of our society.
In 1992 Rajiv Gandhi made a move to earmark 33% of all seats for women in panchayats. Today, panchayats in thousands of villages in India are headed by women, and chief ministers of several states are - or have been - women. Yet, any attempt to advance the presence of women in the chambers of Parliament itself has failed time and again. Only 10.8% of the directly elected national representatives - 59 members of the present Lok Sabha's 542, - are women. Even in the Rajya Sabha, where members are appointed and therefore can be more easily chosen to represent a wide spectrum of India, only 10% seats are held by women. And not even one of them is a woman with disability.
Unless the visibility and representation of women is enhanced in parliament the representation of women with disability will remain a dream. Hence, the passage of this bill must be dealt with utmost urgency. Disability is a relevant social matter, and with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) coming into force from May 2008 it is now mandatory for all countries to ensure protection of rights and active participation of persons with disabilities and thus give them the right to citizenship. Key elements of citizenship include being part of a community and making choices about your own life (such as where you live, or the type of work you do). Citizenship gives a person rights but it also carries responsibilities. All citizens should have equal rights and equal responsibilities. However, almost all disabled people, in India, are not able to enjoy their human rights and freedoms on an equal basis to other citizens. This is because of general lack of knowledge and understanding within society about disability, and also to the lack of disabled people participating in decision-making processes around policy or services that affect them. By promoting an increased understanding of disability and supporting the participation of disabled people in public life, political process and policy making, for example, the rights of citizenship for disabled people will more likely be respected and ensured.
The Disability Scenario In India
Government of India has passed the PWD Act for equalization of opportunities, protection of rights and full participation of persons with disabilities in mainstream society. The PWD Act, 1995, provides for reservation of 3% of funds in all poverty alleviation schemes, 3% of seats in educational institutions and 3% of job vacancies for the disabled. But the main problem is that these schemes, policies and legislations are not easy to access.
Lack of information is a major barrier to the progress of disabled people. Besides, the PWD Act has broadly adopted a multi-sectoral approach, which is not effective as except the nodal Departments, no body owns the program. Very few organizations are penalized for not providing barrier-free environments. Even government organizations have not managed to meet the 3% job reservations for persons with disability.
Inclusive education too has largely been a failure: mainstream schools do not have facilities for children with disability thereby effectively excluding them from the first level of social interaction that would help towards developing a more sensitized and aware population. In light of all this, the implementation of the Act needs clear focus, goals and sense of accountability. This is possible with active involvement and participation of persons with disability in mainstream activities.
Women With Disabilities
Concerns of women with disabilities continue to remain marginal in India where they do not even have access to basic needs. Women with disabilities face discriminatory treatment vis-à-vis women and men without disabilities. According to the Indian Census of 2001, women constitute 42.457% of the total population of persons with disabilities in India. Despite the numbers, their voices remain unheard and the existing legal framework fails to address specific problems faced by women with disabilities.
Infanticide of the disabled is widespread, with baby girls being at higher risk. A newborn with Spina Bifida was starved to death by her parents and family in Haryana despite the intensive counseling, support and medical assurances of an NGO and the doctors. The medical, nutritional, educational, emotional, psychological, sexual, recreational and employment needs of a disabled daughter are the last in the list of priorities of a family.
In a research study, the percentage of girls with disabilities going to school (38.34 percent) was found to be much lower than the percentage of boys with disabilities (61.66 percent) getting an education. In India, only 54.16 percent of all women are literate. With such a high rate of illiteracy among women in general, the chances of girls with disabilities of getting an education are extremely poor. Thus, many women with disabilities spend tedious hours employed in cottage industries, in work for which little education is necessary, whereas with a proper education they could be lawyers, administrators, etc. The problems that confront women with disabilities are even more severe in the rural areas. The inadequate or total lack of access to information, health care and rehabilitation services is further compounded by much higher illiteracy rates, longer distances to services and facilities, if they exist at all, and more severe conditions of poverty than in urban areas. In addition, traditions and prejudices that discriminate against women are more widely practiced in the rural areas. Decisions regarding the lives of women in India are generally taken by their fathers, brothers or sons. And again, it is more so for women with disabilities.
Forming part of two disadvantaged and minority groups (disabled people, and within these women), they find themselves up against a double discrimination, as well as various barriers which make accomplishing objectives essential in everyday life very difficult. Higher unemployment rates, lower salaries, less access to medical care, lack of education, poor or no access to programmes and services aimed at women, and a higher risk of suffering physical and/or sexual abuse are just some of the social aspects which women with sensorial, physical or mental disabilities face. This discrimination is the worsening of the age-old discrimination women have always suffered, more severe but harder to fight, which affects aspects such as education, employment, marriage, family, economical status, rehabilitation.
Disability has a profound impact on an individual's ability to carry out traditionally expected gender roles, particularly for women. Although both men and women with disabilities face difficulties in fulfilling their expected gender roles, as long as a disabled man earns a living, his chances of getting married and having a family are much more than those of a disabled woman. A disabled woman is perceived as one who is unable to perform her traditional roles of wife, mother and home-maker because of her disability, even if she may be able to do so in reality. For example, a woman with mobility impairment may be perceived as one in need of physical assistance in self care and grooming, and therefore unable to carry out the domestic tasks that require mobility and physical labor.
Some studies report that women with disabilities are less likely to be married than disabled men. This is largely due to negative attitudes and stereotypes about what disabled women can or cannot do, particularly in societies where marriages are arranged by the elders and is a contract between the concerned families rather than the individuals. There is misconception that because of her physical disability, a woman may not be competent in any sphere. In addition, because there are few positive role models for women with disabilities, many myths prevail about them. As a result, many disabled women come to consider themselves as 'non-persons, with no rights or privileges to claim, no duties or functions to perform, no aim in life to achieve, no aptitudes to consult or fulfill.'
In this dismal scenario we need leaders, who are women with disabilities, in positions where they can influence laws, policies and attitude by their voice and visibility.
UNCRPD And Women With Disabilities
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, the first internationally binding instrument on disability rights, acknowledges in its preamble, 'the difficult conditions faced by persons with disabilities who are subject to multiple or aggravated forms of discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic, indigenous or social origin, property, birth, age or other status'. It also recognizes 'that women and girls with disabilities are often at greater risk, both within and outside the home, of violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation' and emphasizes 'the need to incorporate a gender perspective in all efforts to promote the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms by persons with disabilities.' The substantive provisions of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities pertaining to women with disabilities is summarized below:
Article 3 (g) – Principle of equality between men and women.
Article 6 – Responsibility of the State Party to recognize the multiple discrimination faced by girls and women with disabilities and undertake measures to 'ensure the full and equal enjoyment by them of all human rights and fundamental freedoms', and to enable the realization of the rights by ensuring 'full development, advancement and empowerment of women'.
Article 16 – Protection from exploitation, violence and abuse. Ensuring of 'gender sensitive support'; providing of 'information and education on how to avoid, recognize and report instances of exploitation'; formulating women-centric policies and legislations to address violence, its identification, investigation, and punishment.
Article 28 – Ensuring access of all, 'in particular women and girls with disabilities…to social protection programmes and poverty reduction programmes'.
Sub Quota In Women's Reservation Bill
Women are not a 'single entity' in themselves and are themselves divided into weaker and empowered sections. There is a concern that while 33 per cent quota will help women from the upper caste to enter Parliament it will not be ensure representation of those from the most backward classes. Hence, sub-quota in the reservation bill is as much needed and based on the same philosophy of Dr. Ambedkar when constituted reservation for SC and ST in Constitution. According to S R Ilyas of the Muslim Personal Law Board, Muslims have been 'historically under-represented' in the Indian Parliament.' In this scenario sub-quota for Muslim women is need of the day. In the present Parliament itself representation of the community is 50 per cent of the proportion of their population. As per Dr B R Ambedkar Sewa Dal and Samajik Nyay Morcha a quota without a sub-quota will augment inequalities in the country and fail to serve its purpose as Dalit women, who are the most backward in the country, need representation to get their due share in mainstream society.
Quota For Women With Disability in Women's Reservation Bill
The proposed women's reservation bill calls for reservation for women at each level of legislative decision-making, starting with the Lok Sabha, down to state and local legislatures. Further, if the Bill is passed, one-third of the total available seats would be reserved for women in national, state, or local governments. The bill also states that 'in continuation of the existing provisions already mandating reservations for scheduled caste and scheduled tribes, one-third of such SC and ST candidates must be women.' Women with disability have not got much recognition by the traditional women's movement activists and hence in this context quota for them within the reservation is required to attract attention to their issues.
This sub-quota is unlike other sub-quota demands:
1. Women with disabilities have been marginalized by mainstream women's movements in India. These women face a triple handicap and discrimination due to their disability, gender and developing world status, mainly poverty. They have been consistently denied the traditional roles assigned to women. It is assumed that they are incapable of undertaking family responsibilities or obtaining gainful employment. Further, with rampant female foeticide and the unwelcome girl-child, a disabled girl-child is at the receiving end of even more contempt and neglect.
2. 33.3 percent seats in panchayat elections have been reserved for women already. A million women are being elected to the panchayats in the country every five years. This is the largest mobilization of women in public life in the world. But there is not a single woman with disability amongst this million.
3. Although women have occupied seats in the legislatures, it is simply that they have not addressed the questions which pertain to the problems of women with disability at all. The demand behind the sub-quota in Women's Reservation Bill is that women representatives from disability sector should address the specific problems of their constituency and also highlight the disability issues pertaining to women.
4. In India the citizen has been conceptualized abstractly as someone who holds rights that are common to all. This bearer of rights or the citizen, note, has no name, no gender, no caste and no class. It has now been recognized that universal rights alone do not serve the least advantaged in a deeply in egalitarian society. For instance, the rights to land do not mean anything in a society where women with disability, especially the mentally challenged, have traditionally been excluded from inheritance of property. Because our society is unequal, different sections of citizens need different rights that address their specific condition, in addition to universal rights. Therefore, women with disabilities need special rights to guard their person and their dignity.
5. Provision of sub-quota within the bill is constitutionally illegal as the constitution prohibits reservation on religious and caste grounds in the Parliament except for the SCs and STs for which it has made an exception. But the Parliament has already passed a law to protect the rights of persons with disability (PWD Act 1996), hence conceding to the above demand will not require any amendment of the constitution.
Close on the heels of appointing Meira Kumar as the country's first Dalit woman speaker of the Lower House (Lok Sabha), UPA has now committed itself to reserve 50% of its seats for women in village councils and city municipalities in its 100-day action plan. This radical move will give a substantially larger representation to Indian women in a country with a population of 1.1 billion - an increase from their current entitlement to a third of the seats in urban and rural councils. When viewed along with the government's commitment to push for the path-breaking Women's Reservation Bill - that seeks to reserve a third of the elected seats in parliament and in state legislatures for women - this move will ensure the largest-ever political space to Indian women compared to any other country in the world at any time. And, at this hour, it is pertinent to lobby for a sub quota for women with disabilities, to give a voice to the 'invisible minority' in India's women movement.
Dr Sruti Mohapatra
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