A woman’s place is in the House

What will it take for political parties to increase women’s representation in electoral politics? After all, there is no shortage of talent and women have occupied 33% of all seats in panchayats and local civic bodies. 

Exactly 101 years after the 19th Amendment granted American women suffrage, a record 116 women, including the first Muslim, the first Native American and the youngest ever, were voted to the US Congress. India, too, has the highest number of women MPs in its history — 62 of 543 elected in 2014, nudging our representation up from a measly 11% in the previous Parliament to a measly 11.65 in this one.

The 2014 election was the one in which, to trumpeting headlines, female voter turnout surpassed male turnout in half the states and union territories. Women have since continued to outperform men as voters in several assembly elections, including Bihar and Odisha, point out Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hinston for this newspaper.

Political parties that speak loudly about women’s rights should, by now, be reflecting this enthusiastic political participation by fielding more women. Right?

Wrong. In the Chhattisgarh assembly elections, women are 10% of all candidates, finds the Association of Democratic Reform. The UP elections last year had 9.2% women candidates who won 10% of seats. In Himachal Pradesh, women were 6% of candidates and won 5.9% seats.

There’s no shortage of talent. For over two decades, women have occupied 33% of seats in panchayats and done so well that states like Bihar bumped up their quota to 50%.

In a series for IndiaSpend, researcher Bhanupriya Rao documented how women sarpanches in Tamil Nadu are transforming villages by focusing on core issues, investing an average 48% more than their male counterparts in capital outlays like building roads.

Yet almost none graduated to state-level politics. Salma was that rare sarpanch who actually got a DMK ticket to contest the 2006 assembly polls but lost because her partymen worked against her. “Men don’t want to share,” she told Rao.

Winnability is the reply parties give when you ask them about their reluctance. You need money and muscle to win elections — one in every four of Chhattisgarh’s 90 constituencies has three or more candidates with criminal cases; 23% of candidates are crorepatis, says ADR — and women tend to have both in shorter supply than men.

And, so, elections remain an all boys’ club that does on occasion admit the odd daughter, daughter-in-law and sundry favourites of male dynasts.

When in power, these women don’t necessarily create space for other women. Despite her various schemes like the cradle scheme to curtail female infanticide, the late Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK in 2014 fielded only 10% women candidates, barely above the national average of 8%.

But clearly women matter, which is why Narendra Modi takes credit for banning triple talaq and implementing schemes like Ujjwala and Beti Bachao. It is why Rahul Gandhi promises to install women chief ministers in half of all Congress-ruled states. It is why Odhisa chief minister Naveen Patnaik promises 600,000 free smart phones to women’s self help groups.

Parties need to move beyond mixies and mangalsutras to talk about true power sharing with women. After all, we have for the first time in our history a real weapon: the ballot box.

First published in Hindustan Times


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