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Towards Gender Equality in South Asian Democracies

In 2007, the United Nations marked 15th September as the International Day of Democracy. The idea behind this day is to review the state of democracy in the world, shed light on current issues and to direct the focus of governments on improving the democratic processes in their countries. The UN aptly describes democracy as not just a goal, but also a process. While it is not a flawless process in execution, the majority of the countries in the world today have adopted democracy as a system because of the shared belief in values of equality and civil liberties. Research has shown a positive and reinforcing relationship between democracy and, gender equality and inclusiveness, therefore, to commemorate the 14th International Day of Democracy, we at Women for Politics want to focus on South Asia’s journey towards gender equality in politics. 

When we talk about women in politics, we often confine the discourse to their representation in electoral politics. We dive into metrics of representation in legislatures, ministerial positions and heads of states. However, success in electoral politics is more often than not, dependent on financial resources, existing political connections; furthermore, women face barriers of patriarchy and deeply ingrained gender biases. We need to broaden the conventional definition of politics to include social movements, campaigns, political activism and engagement. 

South Asia scores the second lowest in the Global Gender Gap Index 2020, having closed 66.1% of the gender gap. While this statistic is relevant, it also masks the political complexities and the influence of deeply entrenched socio-cultural norms in the region. There are substantial differences in the political climate across countries, with some stable and old democracies and some newly transitioned ones. Despite being traditionally conservative societies, South Asian witnessed some of the world’s firsts in democratically held elections. It’s a little known fact that, in 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka became the world’s first woman Prime Minister, and went on to serve the country for three full terms. While the evidence on the impact of gender quotas is mixed, after decades of struggle, in 2016, the parliament in Sri Lanka amended the local electoral law to reserve 25% of the seats for women candidates. It was first implemented in the local elections of 2018, whereas a result of the quotas, a record number of women contested the elections to local offices - 17000 out of more than 56000 candidates for more than 8000 posts. 

Bangladesh, a traditionally orthodox and Muslim majority country, holds the world record for the longest time period (30 years) with a woman Head of Government. Since 1991, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina have been the only two serving as Prime Ministers; one election after the other, which renders the country’s political sphere very unique. In Pakistan, another Muslim majority country, religion has exerted a strong influence on societal structures with attempts to isolate women from decision-making processes. The country has gone through tumultuous changes since independence with military rules, assassinations, and impeachments. Of course, the landmark event in Pakistan's political history was in 1981 when Benazir Bhutto was elected as the first woman Prime Minister of any Muslim majority country. But decades before that, in the early days of post-liberation, Begum Rana Liaqat Ali Khan, the first lady of Pakistan led the battalion for gender equality. She founded the first feminist organization ‘All Pakistan Women’s Association’ in 1949, to encourage women to participate freely in social, economic, educational and political spaces. She was also the first woman ambassador of Pakistan to various countries and was also elected Governor of Sindh, once again the first and only Pakistani woman to hold such a post. 

India’s independence movement also had fierce women leaders who actively contributed to our rich debates on drafting the constitution and ensured that equality of human beings irrespective of gender was enshrined in the constitution from birth. Many of these freedom fighters also represented India on the international platform. In 1953, Vijay Laxmi Pandit became the first woman to head the United Nations General Assembly; she was a fierce diplomat and politician who took on many roles in domestic politics as well. In recent years, women politicians have emerged at the grassroots levels, especially in rural areas despite weaker social agency and tougher gender biases. In 2013, 30 year old Chhavi Rajawat became the youngest and the first woman to be elected Sarpanch (Head of the village level constitutional body) in the state of Rajasthan, a position mostly held by a male village elder. 

South Asia’s nascent democracies have a lot to learn from their neighbours as they decide their course. The story of Bhutan and Nepal underscores the fact that even small steps matter and that gender equality is a long drawn fight. When Bhutan converted to parliamentary democracy in 2008, there were no women ministers in the government. Five years later, in 2013, came the landmark moment when Dorji Choden was appointed the Minister of Human Works and Settlement. Through a painstakingly slow process, more women have ventured into politics at all levels of government, although the average is still quite low. To encourage more women towards politics, in 2012, elected women representatives organized and formed the Bhutanese Network for Empowering Women (BNEW) with the aim of mentoring, training and providing a platform for networking to women interested in joining active politics. While Bhutan’s transition to democracy was a largely peaceful process, Nepal has had a rocky journey from constitutional monarchy to parliamentary democracy, riddled with civil unrest and Maoist struggle. In 2007-2008, around the same time as Bhutan, Nepal abolished the monarchy and transitioned to a republic. The 2007 interim constitution officially enshrined provisions for gender equality, including the right against discrimination, the right against violence, and the right to equal property and created a quota of 33 percent women in representation at the national and local levels. 

While women were excluded from the formal peace negotiation process in Nepal, they played an active role in informal peacebuilding initiatives. On the other hand, in Afghanistan, one of the most conflict ridden states in the world, a few women are also actively participating in the latest peace negotiation talks with the Taliban. In 2005, when the first democratic parliament was established after 33 years of conflict, Fawzia Koofi, a young politician became the first woman to be elected the Vice President of the Parliament. She, like other women politicians in the country, has faced assassination attempts just by virtue of being a woman in the male dominated political sphere and yet continues to be as active and fierce as one could imagine. 

In 2018, 26 year old Zarifa Ghafari was appointed the Mayor of Maidan Shar in Wardak province, a particularly conservative region, becoming the youngest in the country’s history to hold this position. While Maldives became a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) in 1993, there has been very little increase in the representation of women in leadership roles. It was very recently, in 2008, that the national legislative body amended the constitution to grant equal rights to men and women to run for Head of State. Recognising that political parties must also actively push for greater representation of women, Maldives Development Alliance (MDA), a party formed in 2012 was the first political party to adopt a gender quota for Deputy Leaders in its party charter.

South Asia has a rich and vibrant history of fearless women emerging from diverse backgrounds and the toughest of circumstances in societies traditionally dominated by men. Despite the society discouraging them and sometimes even the laws banning them from engaging outside the four walls of the household, there are women defying those social norms everyday and fighting for what they believe in. However, as we look back at the journey of these South Asian economies, we realize that equal rights on paper do not necessarily translate into greater representation and participation. Neither does a commitment to international conventions and charters. Effective change calls for proactive measures by governments, political parties, elected officials, voters and the civil society at large towards reducing the barriers to free and fair socio-economic and political participation and deepening democracy. We have a long arduous journey ahead of us, and the fight must go on. This democracy day, let’s revisit some of the landmarks achieved so far in South Asia at all levels of political engagement in the video below

Sakshi Hallan, Advocate, Women for Politics

Sakshi is a consultant working on global financial inclusion at The World Bank headquarters in Washington DC. She has a Masters in International and Development Economics from Yale University and a Bachelors in Economics from Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. She is an aspiring Development Economist, passionate about public policy, politics and international development.

This article gives the views of the author, and not necessarily represent the position of Women for Politics.

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