Nitika Khaitan and Sumathi Chandrashekaran analyse information on women judges to show how education, appointment processes and geography influence their rise in the judiciary

In 1937, CP Ramaswami Aiyer, the dewan of the princely state of Travancore, made a momentous decision in Indian judicial history. Trivia enthusiasts may know that we refer to the decision to appoint Anna Chandy as a munsiff in the state, making her the first woman judge on the Indian subcontinent. She had already become the first woman in Kerala to get a law degree, and she later also became the first woman high court (HC) judge in India, setting an example for generations of women to follow. Eight decades later, we have only one woman sitting on the hallowed bench of the Supreme Court of India (SC). Surely, this is as good a time as any to take stock of the participation of women in the Indian judiciary.

A lot has been written about the abysmal number of women judges in India. Nationwide data on women judges in the lower or subordinate judiciary are not available, but regional estimates published by The Hindu and National Social Watch suggest the figure is under 30%. In the higher courts, the number falls further. Only 11% of the working strength of HC judges are women, based on information from the Department of Justice last updated in February. The sole woman judge in the SC is one of 28 (see table opposite).

Globally, India ranks second-lowest for women’s representation in courts of last resort, above only those countries that have no women judges in their highest courts, according to statistics from UN Women.

The decreasing proportion of women as one moves up the judiciary is an important trend to investigate. Besides suggesting a general lack of opportunities for women in tertiary education or in the legal profession, these figures also highlight concerns that the judiciary and its mechanisms for promotion are biased against women judges, which several commentators have documented.

While some reports on HC and SC judges focus on their legal background before appointment, age of appointment, and so on, women-specific data on these metrics is missing from public discourse. To fill this gap new data on HC and SC women judges – based on their profiles in Department of Justice documents, court websites and news articles – are presented below. This will also help us understand the internal diversity of women judges: whether women from certain geographical regions, backgrounds, etc., enjoy greater representation in the higher judiciary than other women.

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NITIKA KHAITAN and SUMATHI CHANDRASHEKARAN are a part of the Judicial Reforms Initiative at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.