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NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of women gathered in the heart of the Indian capital on Wednesday, demanding that the male-dominated parliament approve a bill giving women a stronger political voice in this patriarchal country.
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.
Rural women in colourful saris sat alongside college students in jeans and sneakers, all shouting slogans in Hindi and waving brightly coloured flags bearing the slogan "33% Now", while activists and female politicians called on the government to stop seeing women as just housewives and recognise them as leaders.
"The bill was passed by the upper house of parliament in 2010, and we have been demanding that it be passed in the lower house, but it has faced resistance from male parliamentarians," Nandita Das, a Bollywood actress and social activist, told reporters at the rally in central Delhi.
"The men in parliament need to realise that this is not about giving up their political power, but that by giving women their right to a political voice, it will be for the betterment of the entire nation," she said.
Gender experts say that among the numerous women's issues that need to be addressed in India, one of the most important is to ensure that women have a voice in the highest seats of power.
Gender equality in parliament would empower women in general, they say. A stronger women's voice at the top would have a trickle-down effect, leading to the development of policies and laws that would help women at the grassroots level fight abuse, discrimination and inequality.
Two of India's most powerful political figures of recent times have been women, assassinated prime minister Indira Gandhi and her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, who now heads the ruling Congress-led coalition government, and there are over one million female politicians on village councils.
Yet Indian women and girls still face many dangers - from female foeticide, child marriage, dowry and ‘honour' killings to discrimination in health and education and crimes such as rape, domestic violence and human trafficking.
Women hold only 11 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house) and Rajya Sabha (upper house) of parliament combined, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) - half the global average of 21.4 percent.
The IPU ranks India 108th in the world in terms of women's representation in national legislatures, below less developed countries such as Pakistan, which has 21 percent female representation and Afghanistan with 28 percent.
Despite 17 years of protests, rallies, demonstrations and hunger strikes by the women's rights movement in India for more seats in the legislature, male lawmakers have stubbornly blocked the current bill, fearing - activists say - that it threatens their own political power.
Last year, women's groups came together to launched the "#33 Percent Now" campaign to put public pressure on the government to pass the bill.
Parliament is currently holding its last session before a general election due by May, but protests by unruly lawmakers over a variety of issues have made it difficult for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition government to pass any legislation.
The government tabled 39 bills, including the Women's Reservation Bill, to be approved before the national assembly adjourns on February 21.
"What you are witnessing is an urgent outcry for parliamentarians to respond, before this session closes, to get the Women's Reservation Bill passed," said Parvinder Singh, campaigns manager for Oxfam India, one of 35 organisations which form the #33 Percent Now alliance.
"If it doesn't happen now, it will be a classic betrayal as we are not sure what the formation of the next government will be like, and it will give more excuses to our male-dominated political system to stop the bill."