Women’s political participation in India

Shiva Chakravarti Sharma, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives  

As a young girl growing up in India, my elder sister wanted to become the Prime Minister. Unlike in many other countries, she had several powerful women to inspire her. Indira Gandhi was one of India’s strongest prime ministers.  She served for fourteen years, a mere 30 years after India’s independence. India has also had a woman president. Several states currently have women Chief Ministers, and one of the leading parties, the Indian National Congress, has had a woman chairperson for the past ten years. India has had strong presence of women in public life since its Independence movement. Women of India have voted almost at par with men in most elections, and many grassroot level movements have been led by the women of India.

This strong public life presence, however, has not translated into women holding positions in state and national parliaments. Only 12 percent of elected members of parliament are women. Despite this, India ranks 9th on the global gender gap report, in terms of political participation. But this is more of a testimony to the absence of women in politics all over the world, rather than evidence of India’s equality. India, as a developing economy clocking a growth rate of 7.56%, has many challenges in terms of equitable development. In order to grow inclusively it is crucial that India’s polity has greater women participation in governing decisions.

The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report 2016 measures  global gender inequalities using four sub-indices: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. Political Empowerment is measured using three variables – the ratio of females to males in parliament, the ratio of females to males at the ministerial level, and the ratio of the number of years with a female head of state to the years with a male head of state (in the last 50 years).

Although, these values are important to track gender equality progress,  they do not truly reflect political empowerment. Political empowerment defined by such narrow criterion does not adequately capture women’s political advancements. It should also include women’s political participation in electing leaders. Women’s voting participation rate is also an important criterion of women’s political empowerment. High women’s voter turnout is an important expression of political participation. In 2014, 65.63 percent of women in India voted to elect parliamentarians, only slightly less than the male turnout of 67.09 percent according to the Election Commission of India. Although women’s voter turnout is not commensurate to women holding political positions in India, it is important to factor in the active expression of voting rights by women in electing their leaders.

Additionally, measure of political empowerment should include women’s participation in interest groups and grass root activities. These institutions disrupt the popular narrative to create opportunities for new policies. For instance, the Chipko movement in India, a forest conservation movement that began in 1973, primarily by women, went on to become a reference point for several environmental movements. It is important to measure and value this criterion because it represents an important channel of change in the policy and political environments that are not available in the formal government process, yet still shape and influence public policies.

If a broader set of criteria is used to measure women’s political participation in India, it is likely that the figures would show increased political empowerment of Indian women over time. Nonetheless, having women in official political positions, determining federal and national policies, is rather important. A large share of policies that directly affect women are shaped and enforced through federal and national assemblies. Although India ranks highly in the global gender gap index for women’s political participation, women’s political representation remains far from ideal in federal and national assemblies. It is essential that we look at policies that aim to improve women’s political participation to move towards more equitable governing structures.

One such policy is reserving positions for women in local governing bodies,known as Panchayats. In 1993, a constitutional amendment reserved 1/3rd of the village council leader positions for women. Eight years ago, while on a research trip to Haryana, a state in northern India, I saw that several women village leaders had little knowledge of their village and constituencies. Many, if not most, of these women leaders were proxy leaders for the males in their family because the seat was reserved for a woman. Clearly, this policy was not achieving its goals. The purpose of this policy is to encourage qualified women to run for office, not put unqualified women in office as puppets for male family members.  

However, eight years later in the same village council elections, many women have contested and won non-reserved seats. Forty-four percent of village and city council leaders were women in the past local elections. One of the villages, elected an all women (12 member) council. These are significant strides in eight years, demonstrating the positive effect of the reservation policy. Although the policy did not show remarkable results at first, which lead many to call for its removal, the women leaders gradually learned the importance of political participation. The men in the village, who previously could not imagine being led by a woman, elected women on unreserved seats.  

This diffusion of norms is an excellent example of policy at work. Professor Hogg from University of Queensland and Professor Reid from The University of California argue that “norms are not fixed properties of social groups; they are context dependent and fluid representations that best capture the group in the context of other groups.” They also assert that leaders have more influence over others in shaping and diffusing norms. India ranks very low on other gender indicators like economic opportunities, health and survival, and safety of women. Through greater political participation, women can diffuse gender stigmas by shaping norms in the country. The success story of the reservation bill in the local governments should be extended to other political institutions. Currently, there is a bill  pending before the Indian parliament that reserves 33% of seats for women in the lower house of parliament and all state assemblies. It is time to turn that pending bill  into a reality.

I believe that the Indian women are politically empowered in terms of historical participation in people’s movements and political activities like voting, but they remain highly underrepresented in politics, and we need significant policy changes to correct that under representation.

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