DELHI, India (WOMENSENEWS)--It is a mellow December morning in Delhi. Soft sunlight filters through the trees that line the boulevards of the city's stately Krishna Menon Marg neighborhood.
Suman Krishan Kant, however, is oblivious to the tranquillity outside the windows of her well-appointed bungalow.
The prominent social activist is reviewing and paying bills while files wait on the table for her attention. The elegant waiting room outside is beginning to fill in with men and women hoping to meet with her and enlist her advocacy with government agencies on their behalf. One of them, for instance, is a widow who hopes Kant will help her application for an increase in her pension.
It is the beginning of another working day for the president of the country's all-women's political party.
In October, Kant, the widow of former vice president Krishan Kumar Kant, joined with other influential women to launch the United Women's Front to address issues such as women's illiteracy, early marriage and tokenism in parliament, where women hold just 8 percent of seats. To qualify for official party status, the group had to muster at least 100 members and pay about $300 in registration fees.
"Women have simply not been getting the kind of governance they deserve," says Kant. "Take Delhi for example. It has a female chief minister, yet it is one of the most dangerous places for women . . . All this is precisely because we do not have enough women in decision-making and in the political process. A few women here and there cannot make much of a difference."
Prem Ahluwalia is a journalist who specializes in women's issues and directs the Dehli-based Institute for South Asian Women, which seeks to foster ties among women in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and the Maldives. She is also the United Women Front's national general secretary.
"It is for the first time in the history of India that a national political party has been formed by women," she says. "In fact it is the only party of women in the world. We need to ensure that the issues of priority concern to half of its population remain in the forefront of the pressing issues on India's national agenda."
Land of Contradictions
India is often called a land of contradictions and that pertains to the status of women here. The national constitution guaranteed women's legal equality in 1950. India also elected Indira Ghandi in 1966, making her the world's second female prime minister after Sri Lanka's Sirimavo Bandarnaike, who took office in 1960.
This past July Pratibha Patil was elected the country's first female president, a mostly ceremonial position that nonetheless leaves India with a female head of state.
Women hold top cabinets posts and at least three states have female chief ministers. Village councils reserve 33 percent of their seats for women.
On the other hand, millions of women live in poverty, illiteracy, malnourishment and ill-health. In November, the World Economic Forum's latest gender gap index put India among the world's 10 most gender-biased economies, with women's participation in the paid work force at 36 percent.
Recently, Sonia Gandhi, the female president of the All India Congress Party, the ruling party in the coalition government, said she was unable to pass a bill first introduced in 1996 that ensures 33 percent of parliamentary seats--the widely assumed critical mass--go to women.
The Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2006 drafted a bill for the prevention of workplace sexual harassment that was supposed to have been passed this year. However, it is still pending.
New Law Lacks Implementation
National statistics from 2005 to 2006 show 40 percent of Indian women suffer from domestic abuse. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act passed through parliament in 2005 and came into force last year.
Lawyers, however, widely lament that insufficient arrangements have been made for them to handle cases brought under the law. For instance, the trained personnel--counselors, protection officers, service providers--called for by the law are not in place.
The party has these types of issues in its sights. In the two months since its formation, however, it has focused on recruitment and making 50 percent female representation in parliament its chief objective.
So far the party has established organizations in 16 of India's 28 states. The groups vary in size. The Delhi chapter, for instance, claims 25,000 members; another state chapter claims 5,000.
The chapters are mainly led by veteran activists. The state of Orissa, for instance, has Shanti Das, a well-known union activist; Punjab has Pam Rajput, a prominent women's rights activist and scholar.
Men Join In
But that doesn't mean the party excludes men.
As Women's eNews visits Kant's office, in fact, Mohamed Shafique, 24, walks in, pulls out a file from the cupboard and starts leafing through it. He is preparing to begin the day as one of the party's workers in Delhi, which holds state-level elections in July 2008, the first test of the new party's ability to make a mark.
United Women Front is planning to field candidates for all 72 of Delhi's assembly seats. So far it is stressing education and safety for women and an end to all kinds of violence against women.
"We need the youth," says Kant, referring to Shafique, "because India has a young population." According to official statistics here, 50 percent of India's population of 1.1 billion in 2006 was under 25.
"We are not against men," Kant says. "We need men to work with us and we need their support."
However, she draws certain lines.
"Men will not be part of the national committee," says Kant firmly. "Men will be members of state chapters only; but we will have only women at the national level."
Aditi Bhaduri is a gender consultant and a journalist based in India.
For more information:
Sandesh India, women's information network:
World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2007
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