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Where is #MeToo in India's politics?

This article is more than 12 months old

Movement has reached affected entertainment, business and sports sectors, but needs to take hold in government too

From media to sports and business, #MeToo revelations have rocked India this year, but the movement has left the country's male-dominated politics largely untouched - and that needs to change, activists say.

Men rule the roost in the world's largest democracy, where analysts and activists say harassment and exploitation of women are rife, including demands for sexual favours and character assassination.

While the campaign has hit a few politicians - with a state legislator from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party sacked in November - most remain unscathed.

Fear has kept female politicians from talking about the issue, said Ms Kavita Krishnan, an activist with the All India Progressive Women's Association.

"It is still immensely costly for women to speak out," she said. "It is dangerous because if they do, a whole pack will descend on them, gang up on them and bully them into silence."

The biggest casualty of India's #MeToo movement has been the resignation of a federal junior minister, Mr M.J. Akbar, after several women accused him of sexual harassment before he became a politician.

However, Ms Krishnan said that case did not relate to politics per se, as the allegations were related to his time as a newspaper editor.

The #MeToo campaign, which began in the US, gained traction in India in September when Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta accused a veteran actor of sexually harassing her on a film set a decade earlier.

That triggered a cascade of sexual misconduct complaints against high-profile journalists, authors, film personalities, comedians, lawyers and corporate executives.

Politicians have not figured much on the list, but activists say sexual harassment is an unspoken reality in politics in India, where it is met with apathy or hushed by intimidation.

Earlier this year, a member of parliament, Mr Shatrughan Sinha, said that "sexual favours are demanded" in politics.

"It's an old and time-tested way of getting ahead in life.'You please me, I'll please you'," he was quoted in the Indian Express newspaper as saying.

Ms Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research (CSR), said this was the "harsh reality", especially for women who do not come from politically powerful and influential families.

"When you look at the common middle-class women trying to enter that space, then the rule of the game is that she will be asked for sexual favours, she will be pushed, she will be touched," Ms Kumari told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The political culture is infested with exploitation and sexual harassment of women."

CHANGING CULTURE

Campaigners say changing the culture of abuse will require more women at top levels of government who can champion policies and laws to fight abuse, discrimination and inequality.

To bypass sexist attitudes that block female politicians from top positions, they want the government to pass the two-decade-old Women's Reservation Bill, which reserves one-third of the seats in national and state assemblies for women.

Women hold only 12 per cent of seats in both the lower and upper houses of Parliament in India,while the global average is 23 per cent, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an independent organisation promoting democracy.

Major parties, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and main opposition Congress, have championed the passage of the bill, yet it has faced resistance from male lawmakers.

However, having more female politicians might not decrease sexual harassment and could unfairly place the onus of women's safety solely on women, activists say.

"Just because they are women does not mean that they are going to be anti-patriarchal," Ms Krishnan said, adding that #MeToo would not happen "anytime soon in Indian politics". - REUTERS

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