OPINION: India needs more women’s voices in legislatures, judiciary

Female labour participation rate has also been declining steadily

women-protest-india Representational image

A picture is worth a thousand words. I understood the full import of this statement when I saw the picture of the Union Finance Minister’s Budget team published in several newspapers, ahead of the presentation of Union Budget for 2022-23. It was an all-men’s team with the sole exception of Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman herself.

It is high time for us to reflect on gender equality in politics, civil service and other walks of life. For centuries, the social, political and economic status of women was low. Discrimination against women often starts from womb and goes on till tomb. Patriarchy, son bias and other harmful, traditional social practices impeded women’s full development on par with men. Those women who are at an intersection of caste, religion, disability face double or triple discrimination.

Indian scenario

Though women hold half the sky, their representation in many walks of life presents a dismal picture. 50 per cent reservation for women in Legislatures is still elusive. Their representation over the years hovered around 10 per cent and it currently stands at 13 per cent. When you combine strength of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs together, there are 103 women MPs out of a total 788 MPs. It appears that this is a new record, as it has crossed 100 mark for the first time.

The representation of women in higher judiciary is also poor. The Supreme Court currently has four women judges out of a total of 34 judges and this is the highest ever representation of women in the Supreme Court’s history. In high courts, women judges constitute mere 11.5 per cent of the total Judges. Lamenting on the current state of affairs, the Chief Justice of India N. Ramana in an interaction with women Advocates of Supreme Court a few months back said, “Enough of suppression of thousands of years. It is high time we have 50 per cent representation of women in judiciary. It is your right. It is not a matter of charity”. He urged the executive to apply necessary correctives. In addition, he called for an increase in gender diversity in legal education by strongly advocating reservation of a significant percentage of seats in law schools and universities for women.

Women hold 17 per cent of board positions in corporate India, but only 11 per cent hold leadership roles. Valli Arunachalam’s difficulties in Murugappa corporate group point out to patriarchy and deep-rooted gender bias.

The female labour participation rate in India had fallen to 20.3 per cent in 2019 from more than 26 per cent in 2005, according to World Bank estimates. In fact, it has been declining steadily in the past two decades. In fact, our neighbouring countries are doing better with 30.5 per cent in Bangladesh and 33.7 per cent in Sri Lanka.

For the first time in India, between 2019-21, as per NFHS 5 data released recently, there were 1,020 adult women per 1,000 men. Experts say that it is an overestimate and we have to wait for Census results for an accurate estimate.

There is a difference in sex ratio at birth and at adulthood. What is a matter of deep concern is that India still has a skewed sex ratio at birth with 952 girls per 1,000 boys. The ratio is more skewed towards boys than the natural sex ratio at birth. Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Bihar, Delhi, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Maharashtra are the major states with low sex ratio at birth.

International developments

Inequality is deepening and it is a cause for serious concern. The dream of “All human rights for all” is still elusive. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, therefore, declared 'Equality' as the theme for the International Human Rights Day that was observed on 10 December 2021.

Systemic discrimination and exclusion are depriving millions of our fellow human beings of their precious human rights. There exist contemporary manifestations of slavery which include, among others, forced sexual exploitation of women and child prostitution. They strike at the very root of Article 1 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights which asserts that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

International Women’s Day is being observed every year on March 8 since 1975. The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing was a major milestone which led to the adoption of Beijing Declaration as well as Platform for Action. In that historic conference, there was a loud assertion that “Women’s rights are human rights”.

25 years later, the United Nations General Assembly took stock of the progress made since that landmark conference. It noted that there was progress on women’s rights but not enough. Gender equality for women is still a far cry as no country has fully delivered on the commitments in the Beijing Platform for Action. Achievements in maternal mortality, access to voluntary family planning fall short of the goals set in that document.


In the past few decades, some progress has been made. While there was a breaking of glass ceiling in a few areas, we still need to traverse a long distance on the road to gender equality.

A robust and healthy democracy ought to allow women’s voices shape law and policy. We cannot allow under representation of nearly 50 per cent of voters. The dearth of women’s voices and lived experiences in Legislature and Judiciary must be remedied. It is time that all countries take steps to ensure women’s full participation in all walks of life and their representation at various levels including leadership positions.

The author is Vice-Chancellor, RV University, Bengaluru

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