With 74 women contestants from the four major parties in the fray for the upcoming Assembly polls, it seems a happy break from the past three elections when the average number was 25-35. However, it’s only a perceptible rise rather than a real increase.
The rise is in tandem with that of the total number of candidates contesting this election. The upswing is mainly due to splits in the two alliances, Congress-NCP and Shiv Sena-BJP, which meant that all the parties fielded more candidates, including women. The average representation is still below 10% of all tickets given by major parties.
Between the two alliances, 35 women contested the 2009 Assembly polls. The number was 25 and 26 in the 1999 and 2004 polls. The number of women MLAs in the 288-member House has been 11 to 12 on the three occasions.
As important as the representation is the space given to gender justice issues by the parties. It leaves much to desire, especially after the civil society’s sustained focus during the last two years, said women’s activists.
“Gender justice is not seen as a hot political issue as much as say inflation and corruption which are seen as political issues,” pointed out Dr Vibhuti Patel, economist and women’s issues activist.
The manifestos contain the expected: platitudes of 33% reservation in the Assembly (Congress and NCP), women’s health and security (Shiv Sena), and women’s safety and justice (BJP).
While each step is welcome, the need is to evolve a comprehensive framework based on rights, which none of the parties have done, said lawyer Kamayani Bali Mahabal.
“The state continues to see women’s issues as ‘women’s problems’. In fact, women in this context are seen as ‘peedit’ or victims needing welfare and largesse of men,” she said.
For women politicians to rise up the ranks, parties have to start investing in them beyond the local panchayat and corporation level, said Dr Nandita Shah, co-director of Akshara, women’s resource and advocacy centre. “See how the BJP is backing Pankaja Munde, projecting her as the next OBC leader and so on. It may be because of her late father but the party is consciously investing in her,” she said.
Women voters though have begun to demand more. Candidates, especially women, are often asked what they plan to do about safety and security in the city. The issue comes up often whereas earlier women would talk mostly about water, schools and rising prices, said Varsha Gaikwad, former minister for women and child development, re-contesting from Dharavi.
A challenge that politicians and activists run into is that more than half of the women voters do not vote. In some areas, such as Muslim-dominated ones, the turnout is much less than the average 50%. “Women’s groups have been going around cajoling women to come out on October 15. If many more women vote, their issues will become more politically important,” said Hasina Khan, co-convenor of Muslim Women’s Rights Network.