It’s polls once again. Where are women in it this time?
Women and suffrage have a close nexus, because women never had suffrage in the past! One of the most revolutionary women’s movements of all times that invited considerable attention, which was called the first wave of feminism, was to obtain voting rights. Many countries refused to consider woman a full citizen even if the country had a democratic framework. This was the situation in the US in the early 1900s, too. While the country upheld the image of democracy and freedom, women were not allowed franchise. In fact, it is said that women, slaves and children shared the same status in the US society then. The women’s movements strongly condemned this, as even countries like Germany that had an inferior portrait with respect to people’s freedom had gone in for granting women the right to vote. Women in the US finally won the right to suffrage in 1920.
One might assume that 94 years is longer than enough time travelled for all democratic countries to have voting rights for all its citizens equally. However, there still are countries that deny rights to suffrage partially or fully to its female citizens. Some countries insist on certain levels of education mandatory for women to vote (this was prevalent earlier in many countries including some European ones) such as Lebanon where proof of primary education is asked for from women while no such conditions exist for men. Saudi Arabia, the country that scored zero in “political empowerment of women” in the 2009 report of Global Gender Gap study conducted by the World Economic Forum, probably has its strong patriarchal background as the reason for not granting women the right to franchise so far. However, if the resolution passed by the monarchy of the country last year is to be trusted, Saudi women will be able to vote and contest elections from 2015, a remarkable resolution though late!
Having been under the British Raj, India had larger issues to worry about during the early decades of the last century when American women were marching for the right to vote. India witnessed intense nationalism during the period and the freedom struggle heightened later when women expressed solidarity for the freedom movement and took part alongside men. The role and contribution of women in the freedom movement cannot be belittled. There were several women who resisted and fought the Raj, led and took part in freedom struggle and encouraged their men and children to be part of it to free the nation. There wasn’t anything less than an egalitarian society that was hoped for as the ultimate outcome on attainment of freedom. From the time free India became a republic in 1950, the constitution promises equal rights to its citizens. But the egalitarian doctrine—envisaged and desired for all people to be treated equally with the freedom to enjoy the same political, social, economic and civil rights—is far-fetched even after 66 years of Independence.
In a true democracy, women should have equality not just in the constitution but in practice and that in this context is about equal participation of both men and women in the governance of the country. The perennial hope for change was the Women’s Reservation Bill which is expected to be instrumental in ensuring 33.3 per cent reservation of seats for women in the Parliament and Assemblies for 15 years. No pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, as the Parliament this winter session failed miserably again to gather consensus for passing this bill.
What leaves one surprised is the huge gap in what our political parties promise and practise regarding women’s empowerment. Though some parties claim their key agenda is women’s empowerment, which they assert is essential to ensure national prosperity, the same is seen missing in practice. Take a peek at some of the south Indian states to comprehend the state of affairs vis-à-vis the fielding of candidates for the ongoing elections. In Karnataka, out of 434 contestants fielded by various political parties (including Independents) only 21 are women.
The individual share of the BJP and the Congress among the 21 is just one and two respectively. The AIADMK fields candidates in all thirty nine (39) constituencies of Tamil Nadu, but its share of women contestants is only around 11 per cent. In Kerala, there are 269 contestants from the 20 constituencies, of which only 27 or around 10 per cent of the candidates are women. A handful of them are Independent candidates in Kerala while two are from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The Congress’ share in Kerala with regard to fielding women candidates is just two. Parties with communist ideologies managed a much higher number of compared to the Congress party.
Whether we have Women’s Reservations Bill passed or not, there is no reason for the political parties to shy away from the promise of empowering women. This they can prove by fielding a reasonably good number of women candidates, even if it’s not one third of the total. Though there are a handful of women contestants who are either in the political arena for long, so they are familiar public faces, or have some celebrity halo around them which again makes them visible to the public are fielded by the political parties, a true effort in identifying and fielding a good number of capable women is absent. Strategic planning and execution to identify and develop female hands are to be practised well in advance so that it is easy for the parties to walk the talk. There are researches which say that the success rate of women in election in India is far better than men. For example, in the 2009 Lok Sabha election while the success rate of women was above 10 per cent, that of their male counterparts was a little above 6 per cent. Political parties should consider these facts to draw inspiration to actually work around helping women participate in governance.
The percentage of female contestants in the 2009 elections was around 6.9 and the figures can’t be greatly different this time. What is ironical is that around 50 percent of our electorate is women but their current representation in Parliament (both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) is around 11 per cent only. The global average figure of female representation is more than 21 per cent. In the end, of all ideologies “any gimmicks to win power” remains the only true ideology of political parties.
Bindu S Nair is a People Strategy & Gender Diversity Consultant and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at ICSSR.