Page last updated at 18:02 GMT, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Indian upper house approves women's quota bill


The vote on whether to suspend members of the upper house

The upper house of India's parliament has approved a bill to reserve a third of all seats in the national parliament and state legislatures for women.

The bill was passed with 186 members of the 245-seat house voting in favour. Only one member voted against. Several smaller parties boycotted the vote.

The bill's introduction on Monday led to uproar from opponents, resulting in the suspension of seven MPs on Tuesday.

First proposed in 1996, the bill now has support from India's main parties.

Soutik Biswas
By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Delhi

This is one affirmative action which large parts of India do support.

India does have some measures to support its women, but in a largely patriarchal society they have borne the brunt of neglect and discrimination.

Acts such as female foeticide leading to skewed sex ratios in some of the most prosperous states are abominable. Things are changing, but the way India sometimes treats its women is a national shame.

Also, with just 10% of its parliamentary seats held by women, India needs to play catch-up. Its neighbours fare much better - Bangladesh reserves 15% of its parliamentary seats for women, Pakistan 30% and Afghanistan, after its new constitution, more than 27%.

At present women make up just 10% of the lower house of parliament (Lok Sabha), and significantly fewer in state assemblies.

Sonia Gandhi, Congress party president, has said she attaches the "highest importance" to the proposals and passing them would be a "gift to the women of India".

The bill needed the support of two-thirds of voters present in the upper house (Rajya Sabha) for it to be passed.

It will be tabled in the lower house at a later date. An overwhelming majority there support the move, correspondents say.

The bill has the support of the governing Congress-led UPA alliance, the BJP-led NDA alliance and left-wing parties.

Many believe it will help overcome gender inequality in India and lead to decisions that help improve the lives of millions of women.

'Giant step'

Party leaders hailed the approval of the historic bill, which they had hoped would be passed on Monday, International Women's Day.

Indian women

"The bill is a historic and giant step towards empowering women and a celebration of their rights," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in the Rajya Sabha.

"Women are facing discrimination at home, there is domestic violence, unequal access to health and education. This has to end," he said.

Communist leader Brinda Karat said it would change the "culture of the country because women today are still caught in a culture prison".

"In the name of tradition, stereotypes are imposed and we have to fight these every day," she said.

The Congress party's Jayanthi Natarajan said "women have been waiting for 62 years for this moment".

The bill's passage through the upper house was marked by scenes of chaos after it was tabled on Monday.

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Such a policy is likely to increase the pool of talent needed at the top of our political class
Dweep at Desicritics
[This is] not going to lead to the empowerment of ordinary Indian women... all that it is going to do is to make political gharanas (dynasties) even more powerful
Vinod Sharma, India Retold

Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Arun Jaitley, speaking in parliament on Tuesday, said the uproar was "one of the most shameful moments in India's parliamentary democracy".

Earlier, seven MPs had been forcibly removed from the upper house by security guards, after they refused to leave having been suspended for disorderly behaviour.

The MPs had shouted slogans, snatched papers from Vice President Hamid Ansari's table, torn them and thrown them at him.

The MPs are all members of three parties opposing the women's bill: the Samajwadi Party (SP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP).

While India's main parties back the legislation, smaller socialist parties argue it will reduce representation of minorities and socially disadvantaged groups.

They want set quotas for women from Muslim and low-caste communities.

There are currently 59 women in the 545-member Lok Sabha. Under the proposals their numbers would rise to 181.

The composition of the 245-seat upper house, which at present has 21 women, will not be affected as its members are indirectly elected by state assemblies.

India already reserves a third of local governing council seats in towns and villages for women, a move that has significantly increased their role in decision-making.

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