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India's upper house passes pro-women bill

By Harmeet Shah Singh CNN
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India women's bill uproar
  • India's upper house passes bill, now moves to lower house of parliament
  • Bill aimed at reserving one-third of seats for women in federal and state legislatures
  • Women make up just 11 percent of the members of the lower house
  • Half of India's female population cannot read nor write, according to authorities

New Delhi, India (CNN) -- India's upper house of parliament has passed a historic bill aimed at reserving one-third of seats for women in federal and state legislatures.

The legislation -- commonly referred to as the women's reservation bill -- cleared the upper house of parliament on a majority vote Tuesday, but not before the body evicted slogan-shouting lawmakers opposed to the long-pending legislation.

The bill next moves to the lower house of parliament, but no date has been set for lawmakers to take up the issue there.

Tuesday's debate and voting followed a day of drama in the Indian parliament over the legislation, which had been stuck for almost 15 years.

Lawmakers from socialist regional groups disrupted the upper house with noisy protests, forcing adjournment several times, until the members were suspended for the rest of the session.

The bill won passage with overwhelming support from India's governing Congress party, its main opposition of Hindu nationalists and Communists alike.

Political analysts said the small but fierce opposition to the bill is a sign of a duel between the country's regional and national politicians.

"This opposition is about regional politicians trying to preserve their regional monopolies," said Zoya Hasan, a professor of political science at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

There was no immediate risk to the ruling coalition, but it did lose more than two dozen supporting lawmakers in the lower house with two minority parties pulling out.

"This leaves the government on a razor-thin majority," Hasan said.

The country has a female president, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, who in 2007 became the first woman elected to the post. The leader of the opposition in the lower house, Sushma Swaraj, and the speaker of the lower house, Meira Kumar, are also women, as is Congress leader Sonia Gandhi.

But women make up just 11 percent of the members of the lower house, or the Lok Sabha, of the parliament.

In rural India though, they constitute about 40 percent of all elected heads of village councils.

On Saturday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh vowed greater female representation in the country's democratic process.

"As we approach the International Women's Day, let me once again reaffirm our government's commitment to all-round social, economic and political empowerment of our women, whatever effort and resources the task might take," he said.

Half of India's female population cannot read or write, authorities say. The south Asian nation of more than 1.1 billion people also has a skewed gender ratio, with 933 women for every 1,000 men.

If the bill is ultimately approved by the lower house, a presidential assent would turn it into law.

India is scheduled to hold its next general election in 2014.