Updated: March 16, 2021 9:02:00 am
An unusual protest by Kerala Mahila Congress chief Lathika Subhash outside the state Congress headquarters after she was denied an assembly seat brings into sharp relief the difficulties and barriers that women politicians in the state continue to face. The Congress, which announced its list of candidates for the assembly election on Sunday, has fielded just 10 women in the 92 seats it is contesting whereas the CPM has 12 women in its 85 nominees. The Muslim League has just one woman candidate — the first since 1996 — among 27 while only two of the CPI’s 25 nominees are women. The BJP tally is no better — 15 out of 115.
This seeming consensus among parties to reserve the legislative assembly mostly for men is a trend that has continued uninterrupted since the first election after the state’s formation in 1956. Though the number has gone up from nine candidates in the 1957 assembly election to 110 in 2016, mostly on account of independent candidates, women’s presence in the House has remained largely unchanged — six in 1957 and 8 in 2016 with a peak of 13 MLAs in 1996. Kerala’s 15 legislative assemblies have had just 87 women legislators and only nine women have won a Lok Sabha election from the state since 1952. These numbers are stark since women constitute a majority of the turnouts in Kerala. The state also has a fairly progressive gender record on most parameters compared to the rest of the country. One exception, however, has been female labour work participation, which has been declining over the years and is now among the lowest in India. Ironically, the local bodies, which reserve 50 per cent seats for women, have a different record from that of other legislative bodies: Here, women are getting elected from even non-reserved seats and now make for over 54 per cent of the members. In fact, this trend has triggered a more urgent conversation on the iniquitous seat distribution in assembly polls.
Lathika Subhash’s rebellion is a sign of the restiveness among women cadres and leaders across the party divide. In fact, it was a CPM leader, T N Seema, who first flagged gender discrimination in seat distribution, raising it at a party forum some weeks ago. In the past, women leaders who showed electoral ambitions were targeted with scandals etc; now, party mechanisms are tweaked to silence them. Parties ought to recognise that the test of progressive politics lies in whether and in what manner they respond to the challenge of ensuring equitable representation for women in the polity.
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