Over the years, the discourse on reservation for women has undergone a shift from “equal opportunity” to “equality of result”. Direct discrimination and hidden barriers prevent women from getting their share of political influence. Are quotas and other forms of positive measures a means towards “equality of result”? To achieve “equality of result” measures need to be taken to reduce barriers women face.
Sita Natua, a 48-year old elected member of Dakshin Raipur Gram Panchayat, South 24 Parganas, West Bengal says, “In the initial two years, I had no clue what to do and what to say. I was terrified. I could not understand much about the Gram Panchayat. I used to attend the meetings because deep down I wanted to learn and get more information. While doing MGNREGS work I kept asking about the next step. I tried going to the BDO office alone. I did not receive much support. I could move ahead only because of my own drive”.
What Happenes after a woman is elected to a local body?The journey of many women elected representatives underlines similar struggles and hardships. Despite having gender-based quotas since the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution, has the environment become enabling and favourable for women to gain experience in politics and emerge as policy makers?
The presupposition for accepting gender-based reservation at local level was that once women gained experience in elected politics, extension of this reservation to the national level could be sought. A study by Equidiversity Foundation, an NGO, with 63 elected women representatives in six gram panchayats in three blocks of South 24 Parganas and Birbhum in West Bengal found that 63.5 per cent of elected women representatives filed their nomination because the political party insisted. An overwhelming 93.65 per cent of women elected representatives said their entry was because the husband or another male family member was actively involved in party politics. “Previously the thought was that we have to fill up seats for women and hence women were identified. At the local, regional and central (party) level, it was decided which household is to be targeted. Usually the ability and experience of the woman was never considered. This practise has started to change but largely prevails,” says Dayamoy Das, a panchayat samiti member in the Labpur block of Birbhum.
In addition, the general practise is to nominate fresh candidates for every election. Only 22.2 per cent candidates were given tickets more than once. As a result once the “reserved” seats become “general seats” or “SC/ST reserved” seats women failed to get tickets.
At the local party level, despite having women contesting panchayat elections, men continue to hold important positions. All political parties show allegiance to women’s participation by creating a separate women’s morcha or wing. Women still predominate in activities that support male party leadership at the grassroots level. Networks of influence are inaccessible to newly joined women members. Without access to institutional knowledge, limited resources, few role models and sometimes even limited family and community support, women’s participation in political parties has remained well below that of men. While women morchas play a significant role in rural politics through outreach, their contribution to policy development, promoting women’s interest in policy platforms or as an advisory to party leadership remains unexplored. Women leaders at the grass roots level are often used as mere tools for mobilising other women as a show of strength.
How far do quotas go?
Although as a nation we have seen women as heads of state, ministers and leaders of political parties (many have family lineage/dynasties) their presence has not necessarily improved women’s access to decision making positions within political parties. Nor has it spilled over into voluntary party quotas and nomination of women candidates as was perhaps expected in Assembly and Parliamentary elections, where there is no gender-based reservation.
In the 2014 Parliamentary elections, out of 11,311 nominations filed, only 8.75 per cent nominations were those of women. Trinamool Congress gave 15 per cent of its tickets to female candidates in the 2016 Assembly elections, up from 14 per cent in 2011. Contrast this with the 50 per cent reservation for women mandated by the 2012 amendment to the West Bengal Panchayat Act, 1973 brought in by the same party. The absence of critical mass of women in the state and national legislatures makes them ineffective.
At a micro level, while reservation has led families to push and encourage a large number of married women to become part of the political process in rural governance, the same family has not been supportive enough to let these women assume active roles. Sita Natua adds how, “the husbands come to the Gram Panchayat, understand issues in their own capacity and take a decision. How can women protest against their own family members?” Chhanda Ganguly, a member of Jamna GP Birbhum was forthcoming in saying that even though the government has thought of a 50 per cent sharing of work load in the Panchayati structure, the same has not translated to sharing household chores and responsibilities. Hence most women feel that dual responsibility and lack of family support pulls them behind. “We are unable to separate social and familial responsibilities. The biggest problem is what do with your kids? I bring my small child to the Gram Panchayat and have to constantly ask someone to hold him. It is embarrassing.”
Self and socially imposed stereotypes also adversely influence the performance of women who believe they are expected to do worse than males and hence feel safe to leave decision making in the hands of men. It is also observed in general that elected women representatives do not represent the “gender” constituency. Their politics is appropriated by caste and community leaders.
gender is not always the driving force
The same is true for gender issues that are often considered “soft issues” and are at the bottom of the priority list for political parties. Recounting her experience, Bharati Ghosh, a leader in the Panchayat Samity, Labpur recounts how she faced challenges from within the party for standing up against gender crimes. The average allocation of funds for women’s issues through the Sub Committee on Women and Child Development and Social Welfare in the annual budget of the Gram Panchayats in West Bengal is less than 2 per cent on an average. The gender-based issues that women voters may face like violence, lack of economic independence, lack of support for child care etc are not considered important enough to find solutions for. Hence gender responsive budgeting remains non-existent and women voters continue to remain in the fringe of political influence oblivious of their entitlements.
Politics continues to be a male domain and reservation of seats is often looked upon as usurpation of male entitlement to power positions. The need of the hour is to lay bare the inherent patriarchy within the system; work with the gender trappings of both men and women as individuals and as political leaders. Only then can we hope for transformation of power relations starting with the family to the political party.
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