women in Politics

Nadia Ahmed 

Even after 74 years since universal suffrage and Indian Independence, women’s representation in politics remains low. 

The Constituent Assembly of India is often touted as one of the best in the world due to its production of a constitution that manages to encompass every aspect of a country as diverse as India and has withstood the test of time. While it was largely representative, the discourse was dominated by men. 

“widespread illiteracy and subjugation of women caused by pre-existing societal prejudices and norms made it impossible for women to claim political space.”

Out of 392 people in the committee, only 15 were women, making the representation of women less than 4%. While this is not ideal, it is important to note that widespread illiteracy and subjugation of women caused by pre-existing societal prejudices and norms made it impossible for women to claim political space. Due to this, there were very few educated, politically strong, and radical women at the time empowered to be elected to the committee.

Nevertheless, contributions by several women shaped the Constituent Assembly debates. Some of them include Dakshayani Velayudhan, the first and only Dalit woman to be elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1946. Ammu Swaminathan who formed the Women’s India Association in 1917. Begum Aizaz Rasul, the only Muslim woman member of the Constituent Assembly. Durgabai Deshmukh who participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement at the age of twelve. Andhra Kesari T Prakasam, who participated in the Salt Satyagraha movement and established the Andhra Mahila Sabha, and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, who founded the first All India Institute of Medical Sciences as India’s Health Minister, among many others. To this day, defenders of the Indian Constitution rely on their contributions.

Indian history, however, has not been kind to the women stalwarts. Most women of the Constituent Assembly have since faded from the public conscience.

“In India, women did not have a popular movement to fight for their exclusive right to vote and contest for public office. In 1950, universal suffrage was granted to all. The involvement of women in the constituent assembly ensured their right to be an equal part of politics and governance.”

In India, women did not have a popular movement to fight for their exclusive right to vote and contest for public office. In 1950, universal suffrage was granted to all. The involvement of women in the constituent assembly ensured their right to be an equal part of politics and governance. While India prides itself on having had a female Prime Minister, President, Chief Ministers, and leaders of political parties, representation of women in politics is still low. In 2019, India stood 149th in a list of 193 countries ranked by the percentage of elected women representatives in their national parliaments, trailing Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, dropping three places since 2018.

From a representation of 5% in the first Lok Sabha (lower house) election in 1952, the percentage of women representatives in the house has gone up to a mere 14% of the Parliament as of 2019, the highest since independence. Only 78 women were elected as Members of Parliament (MPs), that is one woman representative per 8.5 to 9 million women, greater than the population of Israel, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Singapore.

“Since 1962, of the 543 constituencies in India, nearly half 48.4% have not voted in a single woman MP. The current Uttar Pradesh cabinet features only four women, Madhya Pradesh has two, Bihar has only one, and Delhi has none. This is one of the gravest representative injustices in the country’s history.”

Since 1962, of the 543 constituencies in India, nearly half 48.4% have not voted in a single woman MP. The Economic Survey of 2017-18 observed that women constituted 44.2% of elected representatives in Panchayati Raj (local government) institutions. But at the state-level, this number goes down to 9% especially in the Hindi heartland (Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Chandigarh and Delhi NCR). Here women’s representation effectively collapses. The current Uttar Pradesh state cabinet features only five women, Madhya Pradesh has two, Bihar has only one, and Delhi has none. This is one of the gravest representative injustices in the country’s history.

Though on paper major parties claim a 33% reservation for women in party leadership, that is far from the truth. Women only govern four of India’s political parties. From 1970-1980, 4.3% of candidates and 70% of electoral races had no women candidates at all. And in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, only around 9% of the total 8040 candidates were women.

While women in India continue to improve their capability and enhance their economic contributions to society, the Indian electorate still deems them unfit for representative duty.

“What’s surprising is that the voter turnout of women has increased by 27% since 1962, and in comparison, men’s voter turnout rate has only increased by 7%.”

What’s surprising is that the voter turnout of women has increased by 27% since 1962, and in comparison, men’s voter turnout rate has only increased by 7%. Data from the National Election Studies conducted by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) shows that the number of women with high participation levels in election campaigns increased substantially from 13% in the 1999 general elections to 22% in the Lok Sabha Elections of 2009. Women have been actively participating in election campaigns, not limited to holding rallies, meetings, distributing party leaflets, door-to-door canvassing by party workers and supporters and roadshows by party leaders.

Still, according to Census 2011 data women’s representation in Lok Sabha had never touched 12% since Independence despite the fact that they constitute 48% of India’s population.

Further according to studies on election patterns, women show a higher winning rate than men. Going by the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where even though only 8% of the candidates were women they consisted of 14% of the winners, and 10.93% of women contestants won their election while only about 6.35% of men contestants were able to win. Additionally, average winning margins for women candidates generally tend to be much higher than those of male candidates. The same holds at the state level too, where data analysed from India’s state assemblies over 1980-2007 found that while women comprised 5.5% of all state legislators over this period, only 4.4% of the candidates were women.

“women-led constituencies contributed 1.8% more to the GDP of India than male-led constituencies. A constituency is likely to see 15% higher economic growth under a woman legislator.”

Furthermore, according to the United Nations University which published a paper titled “Women Legislators and economic performance” after studying more than 4000 state assembly constituencies in India for the period between 1992 to 2012, goes on to report that women-led constituencies contributed 1.8% more to the GDP of India than male-led constituencies. A constituency is likely to see 15% higher economic growth under a woman legislator.

Previous research has also shown that, in many instances, greater political participation by women does result in policy choices more attuned to women’s needs and concern as women are likely to bring attention to welfare and public health issues such as violence against women, childcare, and maternal health. Drinking water and road improvements are also issues most frequently raised by female elected officials. The most significant issues for men are roads, irrigation, education, and water. Furthermore, women representatives are more likely to oversee the completion of road projects. The share of incomplete road projects is 22% points lower for women.

“Having more women in elected office has been shown to lead to broader societal benefits such as better infant mortality rates, better education outcomes in urban areas and lower corruption as female legislators are three times less likely to have criminal charges pending against them than male legislators”

Moreover, having more women in elected office has been shown to lead to broader societal benefits such as better infant mortality rates, better education outcomes in urban areas and lower corruption as female legislators are three times less likely to have criminal charges pending against them than male legislators, and the annual rate at which women MLAs accumulate assets while in office is 10% points lower than it is for men.

“In states where gender bias is known to be deeply entrenched, a woman’s electoral victory is followed by a significant decline in the share of new women candidates in the next election.”

Despite these stats, it is seen that politics is still considered a man’s world where new women are not encouraged to contest, there are no spillover effects of observing a woman’s victory. Parties do not switch to fielding women candidates and there is no increase in female candidacy in nearby constituencies. Furthermore, in states where gender bias is known to be deeply entrenched, a woman’s electoral victory is followed by a significant decline in the share of new women candidates in the next election.

In 1994, the Indian government established quotas (reservations) in constitutional amendments (73rd and 74th) to reserve 33% of seats in local governments for women. The Women’s Reservation Bill (108th amendment) has been introduced in the national parliament to reserve 33% of Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha seats for women, but even after 22 years, it is still to be made into a law.

“Such descriptive or numerical under-representation can have consequences for the substantive representation of women’s interests.”

Such descriptive or numerical under-representation can have consequences for the substantive representation of women’s interests. For a nation that had consciously decided to be a representative democracy, the vow in the Constitution to secure political justice and equality of opportunity remains only partially fulfilled.

It took us 90 years to achieve independence from the British Raj. But even after 74 years since independence , women continue to struggle for representation.

Nadia is a Political Science graduate who is pursuing Law and hopes that the world will become an unprejudiced and tolerant place.

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