By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, Sept 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi should take advantage of his government's majority in parliament and push through long-pending legislation giving women more power, according to the country's main opposition leader, Sonia Gandhi.
In the world's largest democracy, women hold only 12 percent of seats in the lower and upper houses of parliament combined, compared to the global average of 23 percent, says the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).
The Women's Reservation Bill - which provides for one-third of the seats in national and state assemblies to be reserved for women - has the potential to become one of the most empowering laws for women in India, activists say.
After years of lobbying, the bill was passed by the upper house in 2010. But it has since faced vehement resistance from male lawmakers and been sidelined, despite pledges by successive governments over the last seven years to enact the legislation.
In a letter addressed to Modi that was published on Wednesday, Gandhi - who is the president of the Congress Party - said the bill had languished for too long.
"I am writing to request that you take advantage of your majority in the Lok Sabha to now get the Women's Reservation Bill passed by the lower house as well," wrote Gandhi in the letter, which was dated Sept. 20.
"The Congress Party has and will continue to support this legislation which will be a significant step forward in the empowerment of women."
With Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and its coalition allies occupying 335 out of 543 seats in lower house, and the Congress Party with 45 seats, campaigners say there is no reason to stop the passage of the legislation.
"The male legislators who resisted the bill have fewer seats in parliament now and do not command so much influence, so I am optimistic that we could see the bill being passed soon," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research.
"The only thing that stands in the way are these patriarchal mindsets, and they are unfortunately still present."
India has legislation which reserves at least a third of village council seats for women - and this has given over one million women a say in how their communities are developed.
But a stronger voice for women at the top of governance is also essential, say campaigners. This would trickle down and bring policies and laws which would help ordinary women fight abuse, discrimination and inequality.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) ranks India 147 out of 193 nations on female political representation, lower than nations such as Chad, Pakistan, Eritrea and Bangladesh. (Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. 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)
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