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India’s leap forward for women

"It is a very happy day for me personally,’’ said Sonia Gandhi, the head of the ruling Congress Party who championed the Women's Reservation Bill. "But it is not for me alone. It is actually my colleagues, the men, and, to start with, the Prime Minister and the members of my party – men and women." The move will up the number of women in the 545-seat from 59 to at least 181 at the next general election. It will also keep a third of seats in all state assemblies for women, but it will not apply to the upper house of parliament. It is a "step forward toward emancipation of Indian womanhood," said the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh who said it was a historic occasion, which calls for celebration. "Women are facing discrimination at home, there is domestic violence, unequal access to health and education," he said.

The 14 year old law went through amid chaotic and sometimes violent scenes in the upper house of Parliament. On Monday, International Women's Day, a vote on the bill was blocked when opponents of the measure snatched copies of the proposed legislation and tore them up. Yesterday, its passage was held up again when seven lawyers, who had been suspended for their behaviour the previous day, refused to leave the chamber. Marshals eventually took them out. Parties representing India’s lower castes and Muslims, traditionally the most disadvantaged in Indian society, have led opposition. Those groups argue that the women's quota will dilute the number of seats reserved for their communities - which in some states is as many as 50 per cent.

The Bill is now expected to be taken to the lower house of parliament for voting next week. It also need by legislatures in 15 of India's 28 states and union territories before it becomes law. Nevertheless it is widely expected to pass because the main opposition parties have already announced their support for the legislation. Women’s rights campaigners have called the Bill a breakthrough for Indian women, whose quality of life still lags behind those of women in East and South East Asia, and in many parts of Africa. The country had poor scores on female life expectancy, health and education and the World Economic Forum ranked it 114th out of 134 countries in a 2009 report on global gender gaps.

By Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children