This year marks the 20th anniversary of decentralised governance in India, the aim of which was that women should hold at least one-third seats in panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) throughout the country.
How have quotas contributed to women scaling the heights of leadership over the last two decades? Have PRIs become more effective in addressing the concerns of ordinary women in India?
These are critical questions. Twenty years since these questions were raised, UN Women and the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) have set out to answer them.
There is growing momentum around the world to foster women’s participation and leadership in the political arena, and specifically within local governance structures. India, with a long history of democratic experimentation and participation, addressed the first-generation issues of democratic participation. In 1993, with the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, India began its engagement with strengthening democracy and ensuring women’s political participation.
As part of our study ‘Local Governance for Gender Equality’ we interviewed close to 3,000 men and women who serve on Gram Panchayats in three districts — Alwar (Rajasthan), Mysore (Karnataka) and Gajapati (Odisha). The findings from the ICRW study, which is a part of the UN Women’s programme ‘Promoting Women’s Political Leadership and Governance in India and South Asia’, reveals that ensuring women’s political representation through affirmative action is an important step towards democratising and stimulating local governance.
However, the research also shows that the quota system does not automatically translate into effective governance. Nor does it mean that issues concerning women in the community will automatically be addressed.
That is why programmes like that of UN Women along with the Indian government and civil society partners focus on training 65,000 elected women representatives in 16 districts of five states to become more effective leaders.
During the study, we found that elected female representatives who wish to run for another term are more likely to do so if they have a supportive family who share household duties. Among women who do not re-contest, it was found that the primary reason behind their withdrawal from public life was the responsibility of household duties such as looking after the home and children.
Although we observed strong opinions among women and men about the role that women can and should play in leadership, it was clear that PRIs are not considered to be spaces where gender issues, such as domestic violence, can be raised.
Gender quotas are an important tool for moving towards effective leadership of women. The mere presence of women in these public spaces can transform patriarchal frameworks. Yet we find that the simple adage of ‘add women and stir’ is insufficient on its own. Women make up one half of society, and if any real progress is to be made in addressing their needs, then deep-seated cultural norms that surround gender roles must also be addressed.
Women alone cannot carry the burden of transforming the governing process. Additional action is needed — at policy and individual level — to alter these public spaces into truly democratic and gender-equitable realms.
This evidence is exactly what is needed to formulate new strategies and policies, with the power to bring about a future where women will not need any reservation to achieve parity in their local, state and national governing bodies.
The women’s reservation bill, therefore, once passed will bring in fresh positive changes. Fourteen states in India have now reserved 50% seats for women in panchayats. It is time for others to follow suit for it’s a future well within our reach.
- Anne Stenhammer is regional director, UN Women.
The views expressed by the authors are personal.