International Women’s Day is a good occasion to reflect on the status of women in India. The best measure of a civilised nation is whether its women are treated with respect, dignity and equality. We seem to fall short. Even though they make up nearly half the population, women here have endured discrimination for centuries. It’s a national shame that India ranks 132 on the Gender Development Index and 127 on the Gender Equality Index. It doesn’t befit a country where ancient scripture placed women on a high pedestal.
The most effective tool is perhaps women’s political empowerment. As American social reformer Susan Anthony remarked, “There will never be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” It’s not that our track record has always been bleak. When India chose democracy in 1950, it surprised the world by giving equal voting rights to men and women at one go, whereas the US took 144 years and the UK 100 years. As early as 1917, Sarojini Naidu had joined a delegation of women to meet the viceroy to demand suffrage for women. In 1919, Madras became the first province to take the revolutionary step of allowing women’s franchise. Britain was shocked. In 1917, Britain had decided to extend suffrage to women over 30 years and that, too, with conditions attached to education and property. It was only in 1928 that Britain extended unconditional universal adult suffrage. By then, a 41-year-old medical doctor, Muthulakshmi Reddy, had become the first Indian woman to become a member of the legislative council in Madras in 1927.
Britain, in its 300 years of democratic history, had the first and only woman leader of a major party in 1977, when Margaret Thatcher took over the Conservative Party, a good 52 years after Sarojini Naidu had become president of the Congress. In 1979, Thatcher became the only woman Prime Minister the UK has ever had. Indira Gandhi had already been the Indian PM for a decade and a half.
Today, the Lok Sabha speaker and chief ministers of four states are women. Just a few years ago, we had a woman president of India. But the empowerment at the top has not trickled down. The obstacles to political empowerment are mainly in three areas — registration as voter, actual participation in voting, and contesting as candidate. The Election Commission of India (EC) has sought to deal with this through some innovative methods.
India suffers from one of the lowest sex ratios (940 in 2011) in South Asia. The gender ratio on the electoral rolls was even lower, almost touching 800. Since 2006, gender analysis has been made a critical element of updating electoral rolls.
Gender sensitivity is also taken into account while publishing photo electoral rolls. It was mandatory to give a hard copy of the rolls to recognised parties. The EC stopped handing out the soft copy as women’s photos could be subjected to abuses like morphing. Separate queues and the deployment of women police and polling staff are some of the standard measures of facilitation.
Studies by the EC have revealed several reasons why female voter turnout is lower. Concern for personal security, dependence on the approval of family elders, especially men, and lack of adequate toilet facilities were some. These were all addressed. To motivate women to come out and vote, local women icons, Sharada Sinha, in Bihar, and Malini Awasthy in UP, became the face and voice of the voter education campaign. This proved a game-changer. Areas with relatively greater gender gaps were identified for increased intervention. As a result, female voters at 54.85 per cent outnumbered male voters at 50.77 per cent in Bihar (2010), and 60.28 and 58.68 per cent in UP (2012), with similar results subsequently in all other states. In the general elections of 2014, women’s turnout shot up from 55.82 to 65.63 per cent — a jump of nearly 20 per cent. Moreover, in 16 states, they outnumbered their male counterparts. The gender gap that used to be higher than 10 per cent came down to an all-time low of 1.46 per cent.
In terms of participation of women as candidates, India is way behind more backward countries of South Asia. It’s ironic that even conservative Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh have higher female representation. However, a breakthrough came with the enactment of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in 1992. In 2009, the Union cabinet approved an increase in reservation for women from 33 to 50 per cent in panchayati raj institutions. However, the bill for women’s reservation in legislatures has been pending in Parliament.
Reservation apart, parties give far fewer tickets to women. The reason given is it’s difficult for them to win. This isn’t borne out by facts. In 2014, women were 7.9 per cent of total candidates, but 11.6 per cent of elected MPs. In all elections since 1957, women’s “strike rate” has always been 50 to 350 per cent higher. It clearly demonstrates that women’s ability to win is greater. Till women’s reservation becomes a reality, parties must give them more tickets. Voters should vote only for those parties that give a fair share of tickets to women.
Meanwhile, there’s a great success story brewing at the local level where women’s political participation is increasing not only numerically but qualitatively as well. Their increased participation in local government will gradually reflect on the assemblies and Parliament. All we need is a stronger and supportive political will and a sense of urgency.
C. Raja Mohan’s Raja-Mandala will appear tomorrow