Affirmative action on ULB polls

Imlisanen Jamir

Five years after Nagaland was gripped with violence that eventually led to the resignation of the then Chief Minister, the State Government along with ‘stakeholders’ this week decided to go ahead with elections to Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) in the State with reservation for women.

The decision to do so was made during a consultative meeting that the State Government held with civil society, church organisations, tribal hohos, political parties and NGOs. It was also ‘stakeholders’ that were responsible for the vehement opposition to the conduct of the ULB elections with women’s reservation in 2017.

The government this time though, says that the decision to hold the elections as per the 74th amendment is unanimous. It comes after the Supreme Court slammed the Nagaland Government for its ‘lackadaisical attitude’ towards implementing 33% women’s reservation.

The present decision to hold the elections with reservation is a result of the Supreme Court’s direction, with the State Government stating that it will follow the Court’s directive. The consultation is apparently a part of the process towards this.

We just celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8. As usual, platitudes of empowerment were delivered in events across the State. But a lot of times, these have been just that, empty words. When and where it really matters though, action has been sorely missing.

Women’s lack of participation in decision making has always been a reminder of how Naga society fails the gender equality test once it crosses the surface level of our institutions and power structures. This is due to varied reasons; from cultural diversities and practices, institutional barriers, as well as disproportionate access to resources.

Reversing these discriminatory practices is not impossible, and can be achieved by implementing the right mechanisms. The process toward increasing the visibility of women in decision-making requires an understanding of the progress made so far, the challenges faced and the way forward. It needs positively changing the current status of Naga women and women's organizations in decision-making, existing institutional policies demanding female involvement in decision-making.

Many propose that reservation can have the unintended and adverse consequence of weakening local democracy. Reservation, they argue, intensifies the problem of gender inequality by giving it the veneer of a solution. However, the world is seeing a wave of changes. In the country, reservation for women in Panchayati Raj bodies has acted as a catalyst in the process of women’s political empowerment.

We must however remember that empowerment as a process is slow but self-perpetuating. In order to further hasten social change, the state should find out the gaps and effectively address them. Also, the onus is on political parties who must voluntarily integrate more women in the political process whether as candidates or as voters.

Providing women with opportunities and support systems (such as reservations and other affirmative action) has the potential to put into motion a sustainable process for a change in gendered power relations allowing them to slowly but steadily break the shackles of existing boundaries.

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