India’s parliament approves bill to reserve third of seats for women

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FILE PHOTO: A member of media works outside the India’s new parliament building before its inauguration in New Delhi, India, May 28, 2023. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India’s parliament on Wednesday approved a landmark bill to reserve a third of its seats in the lower house and state assemblies for women to boost female participation in politics that had been disproportionately low for decades.

Women now comprise nearly half of India’s 950 million registered voters but only 15% of lawmakers in parliament and 10% in state assemblies, leaving the world’s largest democracy at the bottom of global rankings on gender parity in legislatures.

The bill, introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government on Tuesday in the new parliament building’s special session, secured the support of all opposition party leaders.

“The proposal has been passed with more than a two-thirds majority of the members present in the house,” Speaker Om Birla said after the voting.

More than 450 MPs from across party lines voted in favour of the bill, two MPs voted against and about 80 were not present.

The bill now requires the approval – widely expected – of lawmakers in the upper house and a majority of state assemblies.

“It has been a long and tiring journey for women to secure equal political rights and finally history has been created today,” said Najma Heptulla, a former federal lawmaker who for decades had advocated the legislation.

Six attempts to pass the bill had fallen short since it was first introduced in 1996, at times due to vehement resistance from lawmakers in conservative Hindi heartland states.

The 33% reservation for women will not apply to the upper houses of parliament and state legislatures.

Seeking support from the growing number of Indian women who vote, Modi’s party had planned to nominate women for a third of seats contested in the 2024 general election even before this bill was introduced.

“The Women’s Reservation Bill is a mark of respect and the beginning of a new era,” Home Minister Amit Shah told parliament.

The bill’s implementation depends on the completion of India’s once-in-a-decade census, which was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Technical and logistical hurdles have set the survey back further.

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