Election 2019: Where on earth are the women candidates?

An announcement by two political parties, the TMC and BJD to earmark a significant number of seats for the 2019 general election to women has not been an example for other political parties. Despite talk of ‘women’s empowerment’ both the BJP and the Congress continue to be miserly when it comes to fielding women candidates. 

When Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) announced they would be fielding an unprecedented number of women for the 2019 parliamentary elections, there was a general sense of euphoria at a historic imbalance being set right.

Would other parties be inspired? The answer wasn’t long in coming. It was no. For both the BJP and Congress, it’s business as usual.

An analysis of the initial lists of both parties by Gilles Verniers, who teaches politics at Ashoka University, shows just 23 of the BJP’s 184 candidates are women. That’s a paltry 12.5%. The Congress is only marginally worse with just 17 women of 143 candidates analysed so far. That’s 11.9% — a long way from the 41% women candidates of the TMC and the 33% promised by the BJD.

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Understanding the gender confidence gap

Men tend to over-estimate their ability and performance, while women tend to downplay both (from a Cornell University study). Men are four times more likely than women to ask for a raise (Linda Babcock, author of Women Don’t Ask). Why do so many really smart, talented women come across as diffident at the workplace? Understanding the gender confidence gap:

I often attend gender conferences where women outnumber men roughly 20 to one. The gender world’s like that, I guess. Yet, even amongst us, there will always be the one who begins apologetically, “I didn’t come prepared,” and then go on to astound the room with her brilliance.

Women struggle to talk about themselves positively, says Aparna Jain, diversity and leadership coach and author of Own It and, more recently, Like a Girl. At her leadership workshops, she says, “There’s so much self-doubt. Women just want to be perfect.”

We talk of the gender pay gap readily enough. Perhaps we need to talk a bit more of the gender confidence gap.

Research bears testimony to it. Men tend to over-estimate their abilities and performance while women downplay both, finds a Cornell University study. “The ‘gender confidence gap’ is real and closing it is as much a lynchpin to addressing gender inequity as the many other forces that have contributed to it,” writes Margie Warrell in Forbes. Continue reading “Understanding the gender confidence gap”

The long march to justice

The world’s longest and largest march by survivors of rape and sexual assault covering 24 states over 10,000 km in India seeks to break the silence and stigma around rape. My Hindustan Times  column. 

Y’s husband beat her senseless when he found out that she had been raped by three men in the fields where she had been working. Then he threw her out of the house and told her to go back to her parents. “I had done nothing wrong. I was just trying to earn a living,” she says.

When M managed to escape from three male captors, who told her they had bought her for Rs 2 lakh, her family barred her from seeing her kids. That was in 2016.

Just two out of an estimated 15,000 women and men who have taken part in what is perhaps the world’s largest and longest march of rape survivors, Y and M are finally at the end of a two-month, 10,000 km journey covering 200 districts in 24 states. Along the way, they have met police, judges, doctors, administrators, students, lawyers, teachers. They want to change the way you see them. They want to end the silence that continues to shroud survivors of sexual assault.

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Bringing up father

In Hindustan Times, I argue for the need fathers to take a far more meaningful role in bringing up their children by taking paternity leave. 

It was after his son Viggo was born that Swedish photographer, Johan Bavman, then on parental leave, began looking for information about stay-at-home-dads. He found nothing. What he did find was a study that asked children who they turned to when they needed to be comforted. Their mums, said the children. Dads came at fifth place — below the option of not going to anyone at all.

Sweden has among the world’s most generous parental leave policies — 480 days with 90 days earmarked for each parent, and the balance of 300 days to be worked out between the parents. Yet, says Bavman, who took nine months off for Viggo, only 14% of Sweden’s fathers choose to equally share parental leave.

In India to inaugurate his photo project on Swedish dads, already exhibited in 50 countries and now in India along with portraits of Indian dads, Bavman said: “I wanted to find out why these fathers had chosen to stay at home; what it had done for them and their relationship with their partners and children.”

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No new deal for women this coming election

In Hindustan Times, I look at the bleak prospects for women in the forthcoming 2019 general election. Although women are exercising their franchise in larger numbers as voters, their presence in Parliament and the assemblies remains dismal. 

It is early days but already a troika of powerful women — Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and, now, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra — is dominating the headlines. In a country that has been notoriously stingy in fielding women candidates as MLAs and MPs, this is a pleasant blip but nobody is counting on a New Deal for women with Elections 2019.

When women do manage to crack the glass ceiling it is often, such as Gandhi, on the strength of family ties. The depressing reality is that women comprised only 8% of all candidates in the 2014 general election and, as a result, the new Parliament had the old men’s room stamp with just 11% women MPs — substantially lower than the already low global average of 23%.

Two interesting trends have taken place since the last election. The first is the emergence of the female voter. The gender gap in voter turnout in national elections in India is now down from 16.71% in 1962 to 1.55% in 2014. Women voters have outnumbered men in several recent elections, including significant constituencies in Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and even Mizoram where of the 209 candidates who contested the recent elections, only 16 were women, none of whom won.

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Whitewashing women out of public memory

In Hindustan Times, I argue for the need to commemorate the memory of more women, whether by building their statues or naming roads or institutions after them. Why? Because it’s crucial to remember who we are as a people and that our legacy includes not just powerful men in public life but also women who, despite the odds they faced, still surged ahead.  

The conference room at the National Commission for Women (NCW), a statutory body that advises government on policies for women, is remarkable for one feature: The absence of women on its walls.

There are standard-issue portraits of the prime minister and president, yet when I recently pointed out that a few additional portraits of inspirational women might not be out of place, the suggestion was brushed off.

But why blame the NCW? Across India, how many women do we honour by naming streets after them or building their statues and hanging their portraits? Indira Gandhi gets an international airport. Rani of Jhansi is valourised in statues. Savitribai Phule’s portrait very often hangs along side that of her husband. Anyone else?

In New Delhi, women barely get more than a half dozen roads. There’s the artist Amrita Shergill, Gandhiji’s wife, Kasturba Gandhi, freedom fighter, Aruna Asaf Ali, and Mother Teresa.

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What we talk about when we talk about rape

A new book by my friend and college room-mate  Sohaila Abdulali explores the idea that victims of sexual violence are not broken beings. Awful as it is, rape is survivable, and those who have been raped are deserving and capable of happiness again. 

I don’t remember the precise moment when my then college roommate, Sohaila Abdulali, told me about being gangraped when she was 17. It was just an incontestable fact of her life: she was from Mumbai, she loved to dance, her parents grew orchids, she had been raped.

This is not to imply that being raped was not a big deal. It was. If I remember correctly, this is how she explained it. “It’s like being run over by a bus and getting terribly hurt. You might never fully recover from your injuries. But you go on living. You can be happy again.”

In the three decades that Sohaila has remained my friend, she has never let that single event define her life, even though it is an inseparable part of who she is. Three years after being raped and while writing her undergraduate thesis on rape in India, she created a minor stir by writing about her own experience for Manushi. Nobody, at least not in India, had ever written about being raped. Nobody had run such an article with their photograph.

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Home is the most dangerous place for many women

We can’t seem to stop talking about sexual violence from strangers, but cannot seem to start talking about it (or even acknowledge), about the violence many women face from within their own homes.

If a picture says a thousand words, then a graphic illustration of 137 figures — the number of women killed every day around the world by a partner or family member — doesn’t even begin to tell you the horror.

The statistics are part of a study released on November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It finds that 58% of the 87,000 women killed around the world in 2017 died at the hands of an intimate partner or a family member. Every hour, somewhere in the world, six women are killed by people they know.

There’s the 16-year-old, legally a child, in rural Bangalore district, who rejects the amorous advances of a 28-year-old relative who’s been stalking her. On the day she confronts him near her school, he takes out a sickle and slashes her throat.

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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.

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The courage to speak up

Can we even begin to understand the courage and grit it takes for a woman to speak up against her sexual assault? In a climate that is changing, we still continue to shine a spotlight on the victim, not her predator. My column in Hindustan Times:

The complainant in one of India’s most high profile sexual harassment cases is telling me about the price of speaking up. A hostile work environment, mental stress, failing health, long and costly litigation and, despite it all, loss of a job, says the woman researcher who filed a complaint against RK Pachauri in February 2015 when he was still boss at TERI.

“Even today I worry about entering an office room and am scared to open my email,” she says.

Three years later, trial is yet to begin. But, says the researcher, “Sexual harassment by powerful bosses continues because we have a culture that turns a blind eye to it.”

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