Women can lead too, not just vote

The emergence of women as a separate electoral constituency has been one of the key highlights of the 2019 election season. In the quest to win over women voters, political parties have promised a slew of welfare schemes for them, the most important being the Women’s Reservation Bill. The political rhetoric creates an impression that political parties are committed to strengthening the role of women in Indian politics. However, a closer look at the list of women candidates fielded by the two national parties, BJP and Congress [12% and 13.7% respectively], points to the blatant hypocrisy of the parties.

Enhanced attention to women’s issues reflects that political parties have sensed the upsurge in female voter turnout. While that upsurge is a remarkable trend, it has not translated into increased women’s representation in parliament and state assemblies. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women, who constitute 49% of India’s population, hold only 12.6% and 11.5% of seats in the lower and upper Houses of Parliament, respectively. India fares far below even its South Asian neighbours like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh when it comes to women’s political representation.

In the midst of another general election in which the ‘real participation’ of women in terms of standing a chance to get elected is dismal, it is high time we explored the need for women’s participation in politics, reasons for the lack of it and proposed solutions to bring about greater gender parity in Indian politics.

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, once famously remarked, “for me, a better democracy is a democracy where women do not only have the right to vote and to elect but to be elected.” The statement aptly highlights the importance of women’s participation in the electoral process, which is an indicator of the maturity and efficacy of democracy in a nation.

Depriving half of the nation’s population of the opportunity to contest and be elected goes against the constitutional promise of securing “equality of status and opportunity”. Equality and fairness demand that the different experiences of the genders shape the social and economic policies of the country and that the parliament be representative of the people in the true sense of the word. Most importantly, underrepresentation of women in political and public life is a loss for society as a whole as the nation is deprived of the ingenuity, development ideas and leadership of half of its population.

Given the need as well as clamour for women’s equal political participation, it is important to understand why women are still woefully underrepresented in state and national politics. The three primary barriers are: first, politics in India is still ruled by muscle and money power. Candidates with influential backgrounds and deep pockets are the most preferred choices of the parties. The lack of campaign funding and weak political network acts as a major hurdle to women’s entry into politics. Second, the patriarchal mindset and historical male dominance results in marginalisation of women within parties.

Gender stereotypes cast women as submissive and incapable of administering the State. Shattering these glass ceilings is itself an uphill task. Third, structural barriers such as unpredictable working conditions, greater family responsibilities and intrusion into private lives further discourage women from contesting elections.

Tackling discrimination and women’s exclusion from politics requires a nuanced approach that addresses the multi-faceted social and structural barriers hindering women’s political participation. There is an urgent need to change the patriarchal mindset that confines the role of women in politics to party workers, loyalists and political wives. We need to promote an environment that is conducive to greater women’s participation and the Women’s Reservation Bill goes a long way in correcting the historical gender imbalance.

The quota will ensure a level playing field for women, who have otherwise been reduced to the status of secondary citizens. Women have already proved their leadership mettle in local bodies, where 33.3% seats have for long been reserved for women. Numerous success stories of the transformation of communities and villages driven by women leaders only inspires us to push for greater representation of women.

Political parties’ support for the Women’s Reservation Bill is an election gimmick, as is evident from the abysmally low number of women candidates fielded by most national parties. A glimmer of hope has arisen with Trinamool Congress and Biju Janata Dal’s decision to give tickets to 41% and 33% women candidates, respectively.

However, the need of the hour is to increase the visibility of women holding leadership positions, recognise their work and inspire more women to place themselves in decision-making bodies. The paradox between high female voter turnout and low political representation is a clarion call to all of us to correct the historical gender injustice and for women to claim our fundamental rights as citizens of a participatory parliamentary democracy. Until we achieve this, the world’s largest democracy will continue to be impaired, partial and unrepresentative.

(The writers are Mumbai-based lawyers)

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