Women’s empowerment rocketed to the top of India’s national agenda in December 2012 with the globally reported rape of a medical student on a New Delhi bus. Unprecedented coverage of sexual violence sparked agitation in India and worldwide for more efficient police investigations, stronger penalties for assailants and improved security for women. This year, for the first time, every major party included women’s security in its platform.
But parties offer very similar solutions to gender-based aggression. They also posit plans to increase women’s access to education and job training – currently just 19 percent of the formal workforce and 43 percent of classrooms are female. Women even hold leadership positions in every major party. So if female Indians are to vote based on “women’s issues,” stances will have to be more specific.
“There is no doubt that there is a rising incidence of violence against women in this country,” said Meera Sanyal, the Aam Aadmi Party Lok Sabha candidate for Mumbai South. “All of India, across all political parties, realize that this is not a good thing. I can’t imagine there is any political party that says violence against women is a good thing.”
The AAP, formed in Delhi in 2011, won headlines for picketing the city’s police in 2013. Unique in their manifesto is a call to disqualify from campaigns the Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs) and Members of Parliament (MPs) who have been charged with violence against women. A 2012 study found this rule would indict 44 current MLAs and MPs, as well as 327 candidates who contested in 2009.
Sanyal said, “Twenty-nine percent of MPs are heirs. Thirty percent have criminal charges against them. There is no one else to vote for [other than AAP].”
But, of course, there are other parties to vote for. The ruling Congress Party and its lead opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party, hope to empower women by increasing their access to political power. Congress claims credit for a 2009 act requiring local panchayats to reserve 33 percent of their seats for women. In 2011 an amendment increased reservations to 50 percent. And Congress promises that, if elected, it will guarantee passage of the national Women’s Reservation Bill.
The Rajya Sabha approved the bill in 2010, but it has been stalled in Lok Sabha for four years. Just four of 21 candidates in Mumbai are women — 19 percent — yet it’s the highest proportion among Indian states.
BJP staff member Kushal Mehra said, if women want to vote for a party that gives women power, they should look to his.
“BJP is the only party in India that has actually given 30 percent representation to female representatives in its parliamentary body, even to the board level,” Mehra said.
Only one of the party’s 12 board members is female, but women fill 32 percent BJP’s National Executive seats. Less than 10 percent of members in the same governing bodies in the INC and the AAP are women.
But women like Jigisha Mehta, a 22-year-old accounts manager in South Mumbai, just want to be safe.
“After 10:00 p.m., all the trains in Mumbai have started having security guards. Things like that will definitely help, but I don’t know how consistent or stable it is,” Mehta said. “These are basic practices – protection for women, education, poverty development. Right now I don’t think any party that has that.”
She worries the programs are products of election-season pandering, not firm commitments, so she doesn’t plan to vote. Other Indians can use the new “None of the Above” ballot option, designed for them to express their distrust.
Just 42 percent of registered 18- and 19-year-olds are women. Historically women have voted at lower levels than men. But according to Vasundhara Mohan, associate director of the Center for Study of Society and Secularism, young women like Mehta don’t have much faith in politics. Mohan supports reservations, but thinks seats will be filled with women more like Sanyal, who at 53 has already had a successful career, than Mehta, who’s just beginning one.
“Young women have not changed the pattern,” Mohan said. “For the last four or five years, middle-aged and older women are really coming to politics. Young women in India want to take up jobs, education, earn money, and politics is the field of men, not women.”
The 16th Lok Sabha might guarantee One-third representation, MPs with clean records and even security guards on trains to women. But Mehta and her coworkers can’t just vote for the broad cultural change they desire.
“Even the people start to forget what has happened,” Mehta said. “I would not just blame the [politicians] who are there starting up [legislation]. I would question — you know, you had a campaign you did for women’s safety. What’s happened to it?”
And if progress is slow, politicians will not be solely to blame.
“It has come into the public mind that women are weak,” Mohan said. “Men must understand that women are equally strong, and more strong, than men. Only then can women fight all these atrocities. Government cannot do that. Society has to change. And it is not easy for society to change.”
Kaysie Ellingson and Chhaya Nene contributed to this report.
In association with the Annenberg School for Journalism and Communications, University of Southern California