By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, Feb 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The pitiful show of female candidates in India's state elections is an indictment of the failure of successive governments to enact a two-decade-old bill to give women a stronger voice in parliament, activists said.
In the world's largest democracy, women hold only 12 percent of seats in the lower and upper houses of parliament combined, says the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) - just over half the global average of 23 percent.
After years of lobbying by activists, a bill - which provides for one-third of the seats in national and state assemblies to be reserved for women - was passed by the upper house in 2010.
Yet it has faced vehement resistance from male lawmakers and has failed to be tabled for discussion in the lower house, despite pledges by successive governments over the last seven years to enact the legislation.
The National Alliance for the Women's Reservation Bill, a coalition of over 20 women's rights organisations, said their research showed in polls currently taking place across five Indian states, women made up less than 6 percent of candidates.
"Women face so many difficulties in India and it is the same in political parties. Just enter these male-dominated, patriarchal political party offices and you will realise how difficult it is to survive as a woman in politics in India," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research.
"They never talk about it openly, but women face everything from sexual harassment to discrimination. As a result our women are not getting the space they deserve in the political decision-making process," Kumari told a news conference.
The state polls - taking place in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the north, Goa in the southwest and Manipur in the northeast - show abysmally low numbers of women being fielded by all parties, including Prime Minister Narendra's Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said the alliance.
For example, in Uttar Pradesh - India's most populous state with 200 million people - the BJP has given 11 percent of seats to women candidates. Other parties such as the Congress Party, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party have allocated 5, 12 and 5 percent respectively to women.
India is ranked 87 out of 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap 2016, an annual report by the World Economic Forum which measures how women fare in areas such as economic participation, health, education and political representation.
Experts say among the women's issues that need to be addressed in India such as sexual violence, discrimination in health, education and employment, one of the most important is to ensure that women have a voice in the highest seats of power.
"This issue - women's participation in decision-making in parliament is not a women's issue, it is a social issue. It is part of the Constitution of India which guarantees equality for both men and women," said Jyotsna Chatterjee, director of the Joint Women's Programme.
"This government as well as the main opposition Congress party have put it in their manifestos, and many of us voted for them because of this. They now should honour their pledge and bring it before parliament."
The IPU ranks India's representation of women in national parliament well below neighbouring states such as Pakistan, which has 21 percent female representation, Afghanistan with 28 percent, Nepal with 30 percent, and Bangladesh with 20 percent. (Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)