In the context of recent remarks made by the Congress vice-president about empowerment of women and an increase in the incidents of crimes against women, one wonders whether issues related to women have resonated with our lawmakers in Parliament. As the term of the 15th Lok Sabha comes to an end, a question that needs to be asked is how proactive have our legislators been in enacting laws to secure the rights of women.
A review of the work done reveals that women's issues have been legislated in Parliament in an ad hoc manner. While there is overall parliamentary inertia in passing laws, legislative action has been reactive rather than proactive on the subject of women's issues. When legislation has been enacted, it has been in response to public demand, or when the judiciary has stepped in to address gaps in the legal framework.
In looking at how the 15th Lok Sabha addressed women's issues, two particular attempts stand out. The Law Commission in 2001 and the National Commission for Women have previously recommended an overhaul of the Indian Penal Code to ensure stricter penalties for crimes against women including sexual offences and acid attacks. While a bill was introduced in Parliament in 2012, the pressure to act on these recommendations emerged only in the aftermath of the brutal rape of a young girl in Delhi. Parliament finally took notice and passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill in March 2013 to provide stringent measures for crimes against women. While it is important that the legislature is responsive to public movements, it can be worrisome that big-ticket legislative change is ushered only in response to protests on the street.
Take the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace where, in the Vishaka judgment in 1997, the Supreme Court laid down specific guidelines on the prevention of sexual harassment of women at the workplace. The Vishaka guidelines defined sexual harassment and codified preventive measures and redressal mechanisms to be undertaken by employers. However, it was only in 2013 that Parliament passed a law to protect women from sexual harassment at their place of employment. The Act and rules to give effect to its provisions were not brought into force till as late as December last year, when several incidents of sexual harassment caught the media's attention.
The responsiveness of Parliament to enact legislation that gives women greater representation in political office has been less than optimal. Over the years, several committees and bodies have advocated for the need to provide reservation for women in political office and political parties. Currently, three proposals to enhance reservation for women in elected bodies are pending parliamentary approval. The Women's Reservation Bill proposes to reserve a third of all seats for women in Lok Sabha and the state legislative Assemblies. The 110th and 112th Constitution Amendment Bills increase reservation for women from a third to 50 per cent of the total seats in a panchayat and municipality.
All these bills will lapse unless they are passed in the last session of the 15th Lok Sabha, The lack of political will in enacting these bills is evident from the fact that past efforts to pass a law reserving seats for women in Parliament and state Assemblies have not been successful. Multiple bills with the same objectives were introduced on three separate occasions in 1996, 1998 and 1999, but lapsed with the dissolution of the respective Lok Sabhas.
In other matters affecting women's issues, Parliament had made less-than-judicious use of its power to enact legislation. For example, the Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill seeks to amend laws governing divorce and marriage. The bill introduces irretrievable breakdown of marriage as new grounds for divorce and allows the court to consider the value of the inherited or inheritable property of the husband when computing compensation to his wife and children. An amendment to the Indecent Representation of Women Act prohibits the publication or distribution of any material that contains indecent representation of women and includes new forms of communication such as the Internet, satellite-based communication and cable television. There is also a proposal to establish the first central university exclusively for women, with the objective of giving them increased access to higher education and job opportunities. None of these bills was passed by Parliament.
It is a matter of concern that Parliament has addressed women's issues in a reactive rather than well-thought-out way. It is time our legislators demonstrate original effort in addressing legislative gaps by framing laws that are timely, well considered and deliberated.