Compared to the past, we now witness that there has been strengthening of women’s participation in all spheres of life as a major discourse of economic and social development in the last few decades. Many international and bilateral development agencies have proclaimed policies to integrate women better into social and economic processes. However, in spite of this, we see that they share a low presence in elected political bodies. This points to the fact that the universal adult franchise is inadequate to overcome the overwhelming structural constraints that impede female presence in political office. Some reasons for this include the traditional recruiting practices of political parties, the differential time budget of women, furthermore, in developing countries women have lower educational achievements due to social norms that restrict their freedom of movement.
A range of thinkers have opined that quotas for women have proved to be viable to overcome such structural obstacles. Countries that managed to enlarge the number of female representatives is because of the reservation of seats either through self-imposed party regulations or through legal action by the state. But there are critics who say that quotas are discriminatory in nature and it is also criticized by those who don’t view women as the political category in themselves.
India has a women’s quota of 33% at the local level. This happened via the 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution. It laid down new rules for the establishment and design of rural local government i.e. Panchayati Raj. This stipulates that at least 33% of seats and positions have to be filled by women. The proponents believe this quota will lead to their empowerment but critics claim that women will act merely as proxies for influential men and they also say that women in rural India lack basic qualifications that are required for such positions of power. What becomes important in this regard is that power defines politics and power is needed for the empowerment of women who have been marginalized historically and hence, proponents assume that through quotas women would transform politics by introducing new issues and different ways of doing politics.
Political Scientist Evelin Hust conducted a field research in Balipatna Block of Khordha district and Block Gania in Nayagarh district in Odisha where she identified a couple of problems. One such issue that she identified was that the female legislators may or may not work for the benefit of women. Therefore, quotas can be an enabling condition for women empowerment but it is not sufficient by itself. Another issue being that by and large women lacked knowledge about politics due to being less educated. Moreover, the dominant discourse is still opposed to women’s political role in rural politics. Women also lacked actual political presence of the representatives as it was noted that women signed up for the panchayat records at home while it was their husbands who participated in such meetings.
However, there are also many positive gains in regard to the process of empowerment of the female representatives. They gained new knowledge about politics and local issues. Women have achieved higher visibility in village community which is a very important development for rural India. But women empowerment cannot be guaranteed by quotas alone, we need additional strategies in place to promote self-reliance of women as well as remove the structural obstacles.