Women still lag behind in man’s world
Apr 28 2014
Under British rule, one of the arguments the imperial government gave against increasing the female franchise in the 1920s and 1930s was concern that women would just replicate their husband’s votes and that they would be unlikely to venture out to polling stations for fear of propriety. But as the increased turnouts show, Indian wo-men are not afraid to join lengthy queues to exercise their democratic right.
Though women and men vote separately, there are still concerns that many wom-en’s votes are influenced by their male relatives particularly because they are not fully literate about the different parties. According to the 2011 census, literacy for women (65.46%) was still far behind men (over 80%). But can their lack of literacy be used as an excuse for the way women vote or should the candidates be doing more to address the concerns of their female constituents?
Female concerns have not been absent from the election. On March 8, various activist groups launched a national ‘womanifesto’, calling for action on education, justice and equal opportunity for women with particular reference to concerns about violence and rape against women. The womanifesto called upon all parties to sign up to their six-point plan, which included commitment to the Women’s Reservation Bill, languishing in the Lok Sabha since 2010.
The three main parties: BJP, Congress and AAP have all stated commitment to the Women’s Reservation Bill in their manifestos, which will ensure that 33 per cent of seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies are reserved for women. And yet, the number of female candidates standing in the general election does not meet this quota. Only 12 per cent of AAP and Congress candidates are women, and only 9 per cent of BJP candidates are women. In Delhi, less than a 10th of the candidates are women.
On April 9, the Network of Women in Media in India launched a blog Gender and Media Watch Election 2014 to highlight any media attention on gender issues during the election, thereby highlighting how little attention has been really given to gender concerns where male-dominated personality politics has ruled.
There are, of course, a number of high-profile female politicians in India: Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee to name the most influential in this particular election. All political parties have relied on their female politicians, and other female supporters, whether family members or Bollywood stars, to endorse them. And there has been media interest in one woman in particular: Jashodaben, the estranged wife of Narendra Modi. But have the key concerns about corruption, literacy, growth and inflation been tailored towards women’s concerns? Would the Women’s Reservation Bill be enough?
International interest and concern about female safety in India have hardly been addressed in election campaigns. There have been huge global concerns after attention was drawn towards various notorious rape cases. But this issue is unlikely to affect the outcome of the election.
Nor is commitment to the Women’s Reservation Bill. Most voters are unaware of or given access to the election manifestos, as many were published merely days before, or in the case of the BJP, on the day voting began.
It is nearly one hundred years since Indian women first petitioned the imperial government, in 1917, for the female vote. Under British rule, female activists campaigned hard for the introduction of universal adult suffrage. At that time, the Women’s Indian Association, the All-India Women’s Conference and National Council of Women in India were all vehemently opposed to reserved seats in parliament, arguing for a ‘fair field and no favour’. Now, however, women’s groups have to demand for such favour in order to empower women and highlight female concerns.
There is also a third gender to consider. Last week, the Supreme Court passed a ruling that formally recognised transgender people. India has a transgender candidate, Bharati Kannamma, who is standing as an independent in Madurai, who could become the second transgendered MP in the world. Corruption and living standards form key parts of her campaign.
These are concerns that all Indians, of all genders, face. Economic inequality affects all sexes. And concern about corruption and bribery extends to protection against sexually-motivated assaults and discrimination. But as female suffragettes argued in the early 20th century, women needed to exercise their right to vote to ensure that nearly half the population was being represented. They also wanted a good number of women in parliament to get their voices heard.
Whichever party wins, it remains to be seen whether they remain committed to the Women’s Reservation Bill once in power. Indeed there has been vociferous opposition to the bill from other protected groups. Judging by the lack of attention in the last few weeks, it seems unlikely we will be seeing this Bill pass any time soon. However, it is up to the parties to start looking ahead to ensure that more female candidates are put forward in future state elections if we are ever going to get close to a 33 per cent representation.
(The writer is lecturer in social & economic history, University of Glasgow)