The election season is well and truly upon us. Preparations are in full swing, major parties across the country are stitching up alliances and the only question surfacing in the minds of everyone is who will head the country for the next five years? Will Narendra Modi come back to power in 2019 or will the Mahagathbandhan work in favour of the opposition?
But the question that needs answering for Shakti, a non-partisan collective, is entirely different. They are fighting a battle for women to get 50% reservation in the Lok Sabha. As per a December 2018 report, only 11% of women are MPs and 9% are MLAs, though there are over 40% women in local bodies.
Shakti's objective is to enable more women to be elected as MPs and MLAs. People from 18 states across the country, including first-time voters, students, farmers, domestic workers and civil society groups, are part of the campaign.
As part of International Women's Day celebrations on March 8, the collective hosted a nationwide campaign to discuss the challenges women face when it comes to taking politics as a career. The campaign was held in eight cities - Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Bhubaneshwar, Chennai, Chittoor, Hyderabad, New Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram. In Maharashtra too, it was hosted in 19 districts.
“The agenda of the campaign is simple – women form 50% of the people in the country so we are only demanding that much space in governance. We are demanding half the seats in the Lok Sabha only because we deserve it,” said Sujatha Ramesh Babu, an activist from Chennai. Shakti has been trying to push political parties into giving more women a chance in politics. It has also taken up the issue with the Election Commission.
In a historic move, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on Sunday announced that the BJD would field women in 33% of the Lok Sabha seats in the state in the upcoming elections. But is it enough?
Madhumita Gomathinayagam, India’s first transgender HR manager, disagrees. "I don't think even 50% is enough. I think we should aim at getting 100% reservation. If we aim for 100, only then will we be able to achieve the 50% that we want. Political parties are not willing to pay money or give security to women and most women aren’t fighting for it either. Women have to take the matter into their own hands, fight for their rights and make space for themselves in this democracy,” she said.
But why do women need reservations to run for elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, some may ask. This is because of our patriarchal society and its notions, says Prof. Kalpana Karunakaran from IIT Madras. "When Hilary Clinton was running for presidential elections, she was faced with questions like which dish do you like to cook the most and do you sit down with your children when they're studying - all these on national television. Her dark lipstick was judged. Her personal life was taken into consideration. Men never face such questions as candidates and it only shows how much more privileged they are. That is why women need reservation," she said.
The sessions also witnessed active participation from first-time voters and students. Lelavathy, a psychology student based in Chennai, says that more often than not, women don't get into politics because of the family. "There's no financial security, we are asked to take care of the home and the way politics has been portrayed in the media, families usually don't push women to enter politics," she says.
Although there is no word from the Election Commission about reservation of seats for women in the Lok Sabha elections, volunteers at Shakti are hopeful that political parties will accept their demands.