Women’s exclusion from policy-making bodies has led to inappropriate responses to women’s issues and gender insensitive policy-making more broadly. Since the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi on 16 December 2012, women’s safety and security has come onto the political agenda. However, the approach taken by the government has been extremely patriarchal and patronising. Rather than highlighting women’s rights to live in a safe and secure environment without any fear of violence, the government has presented women as defenceless, weak and in need of protection. This regressive approach focuses on the female victims rather than the male perpetrators and exemplifies the patriarchal and insensitive nature of India’s parliament to women’s issues.
In contrast to national and state level politics women’s political participation in local politics is significantly higher. In 1992 the Government of India passed the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, which reserved 33 percent of seats for women in local governance bodies across the country, which are known as Panchayati Raj Institutions. The reservation works on a rotational basis in which 33% of constituencies are reserved for women for one term of government at which point the reservation rotates to another constituency. The reservation of seats is chosen at random or by lottery. India has a direct voting system, which means that in each reserved constituency only women candidates are able to contest the election and each community member who is eligible to vote selects their preferred candidate. Using the first past the post methodology, the woman with the most votes is then elected to represent the electorate.
After completing their term women elected representatives can re-contest their seats, however, the candidacy is once again opened up to men. Since the implementation of the reservation system women’s political participation in local self-governance has skyrocketed. Currently, over 1.5 million women hold positions in Panchayati Raj institutions, 36.8 percent of all those elected. The emergence of successful and effective women leaders has led many states to voluntarily increase the reservation of seats for women to 50 percent. In states such as Bihar, which has increased the reservation to 50%, women make up 54 percent of all elected representatives at the Panchayat level. The reservation of seats in the Panchayati Raj Institutions has demonstrated that women can not only contest and win elections but that they can also be strong and effective leaders.
By enabling women to take on leadership positions the reservation system has also given voice to women’s concerns and issues in local governance bodies. Further, it has had positive outcomes for female elected representatives as well as for the wider community. Female elected representatives experience higher self-esteem and confidence and have improved decision-making skills. Women’s participation in Panchayati Raj Institutions also ensures that the needs, values, and priorities of the whole community are taken into consideration when developing and implementing policies rather than just those of male constituents. Women’s political participation also has positive outcomes in the development within their communities and studies have shown that women elected representatives are bringing about necessary changes within their villages in spite of the adverse social and political environment. This includes challenging the status of women, transforming social perceptions of women as innocent, weak and inferior to intelligent, strong and capable leaders, and taking steps to address key issues such as violence, poverty and inequality.
However, after two decades of reservations women’s participation within the Panchayati Raj Institutions remains problematic and women face a range of structural and procedural challenges that restrict their capacity to become effective leaders. Women’s increased vulnerability to poverty, lower educational status, and lack of financial independence are all compounded by the perpetuation of traditional and outdated social attitudes, which give preference to male leaders. Women are often assumed to be a proxy for male family members who are not able to contest the seat due to the reservation system and their capacity to complete their role and to make independent decisions is constantly questioned. The violent nature of politics, in which political actors often experience physical and emotional violence, can also have a negative impact on women’s political participation.
Female political actors are particularly vulnerable to violence and women who are active within politics often face harassment, character assassinations and even threats of or actual physical violence. This violence can reduce women’s capacity to carry out their role as elected leaders as well as their will to engage with politics more broadly. In spite of these continuing challenges to women’s participation in Panchayati Raj Institutions, the reservation of seats has been successful in increasing the number of women in local self-governance from 4-5 percent to a minimum of 33 percent of all elected representatives. The remaining challenges will only be overcome as more and more women take on leadership roles and traditional and cultural social values that discriminate against women are broken down.
Patriarchy and Governance : The marginalisation of women from governance structures is representative of a larger imbalance between men and women throughout the country. The prevalence of conservative and patriarchal mindsets amongst elected representatives and the community at large is a key reason for the continued resistance towards women’s political empowerment. Women’s engagement in governance threatens the status quo in two key ways. Firstly, women’s participation in politics enables women’s voices to be more prominent and influential within governance processes. This in turn leads to more gender sensitive policies and service provision and to a more gender just society. The realisation of gender equality inevitably involves a reduction in men’s power in society and over women. As such, for many men this is not a desirable outcome.
Secondly, the majority of India’s leaders are men and their position as leaders gives them power and prestige within their communities. The elevation of women leaders, particularly through political reservations, threatens this position of power. In India’s current political scenario the reservation of 33 percent of seats in governance bodies for women would result in almost 33 percent of male leaders losing their seats, their jobs and their influence in destiny making. As such, for male leaders, the promotion of women’s political empowerment is often directly counter to their personal and professional interests, which can go a long way in accounting for the lack of political will for addressing women’s political marginalisation.
Women’s full empowerment cannot be achieved until and unless they have the opportunity to contribute equally in all the spheres of the society including the political domain. While women continue to be excluded from leadership positions, issues concerning women will also continue to be neglected. The Constitution grants equal opportunity to women to participate in the political discourse, to contest elections, and to take up leadership positions in local, state or national level governments. The full and equal participation of women in politics is also essential to the achievement of gender equality in our society. The increase in women’s representation will lead to women’s issues being raised more often and it will bring meaningful change to the way elected bodies govern, particularly in the issues they prioritise.
Women’s participation in politics is a human right. It is also vital for overcoming widespread gender inequality and discrimination and for achieving key development outcomes such as improvements in health and education status. Women leaders have the capacity to challenge and overcome traditional and patriarchal social, cultural and political structures that are preventing India from achieving its potential as a global leader. Facilitating their participation in politics will enable them to become forerunners in economic and social progress. Throughout India men’s dominance in politics must be challenged. It is women leaders who hold the keys to our future.
The number of women who vote in elections and the nature of women’s voting choices are indicative of women’s increased political engagement and participation. However, this is only one element of political participation and women are increasingly presented as voters but not as participants within governance structures. Women are extremely under-represented within all major parties and the patriarchal nature of party structures excludes and discriminates against women who choose to defy social expectations and actively participate in politics.
There are two types of political parties within Indian politics; the first are membership-based parties that hold regular party elections and the second are family dynasties. The majority of the country’s political parties fall into the second category. These parties are extremely patriarchal and women are largely excluded from engaging with party decision-making processes and are not allocated tickets to contest elections. However, the patriarchal foundations of membership-based parties also influences their engagement with women as voters, political actors, and potential representatives and women do not make up more than 10 percent of any party’s membership based at either the state or national level.
The two major political parties in the country, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have both reserved 33% of seats for women in all decision-making bodies within the party. However, these reservations are not being implemented and women continue to be marginalised from decision-making bodies and are not allocated tickets to contest elections. Only 556 women contested the 2009 national election out of 8070 candidates and only 59 of these women were successful in winning their seats. Without the support of political parties it is difficult for women to overcome the challenges they face when entering politics. Women often do not even have the necessary resources to compete with their male counterparts, they are restricted by the widespread perception that men are stronger and more effective leaders, and in many cases they are unable to navigate the political hierarchies of the contemporary political arena without the patronage of male leaders.
The distribution of power within the Indian democracy is based on a gamut of overarching traditional conditions that influence the way society votes. Major determinants in the system include religion, caste, regions and communities. Voting for candidates based on cultural sameness obfuscates the motive behind democracy. However, these factors have continued to be extremely influential for Indian voters. Real time issues such as lack of development, corruption and women’s issues have so far been relegated to the background of Indian politics. However, the country has been observing a new wave of late. The nation is gradually awakening to a fresh conscience.
The rise against corruption in political spaces and call for enhancement of women’s safety in the country are inspiring phenomena. Yet, the power of female voters is yet to be fully realised and gender issues continue to be marginalised from the political domain. However, women have not formed a vote bank or a significant voting constituency and in spite of widespread gender inequality and discrimination against women, gender has not become a major political issue. While women have become more active engaged voters and are now voting in larger numbers than men they have not recognised their power to shape political dialogue and governance.
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