Assembly Elections 2018: Women voting in big numbers, but don’t have enough say
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Assembly Elections 2018: Women voting in big numbers, but don’t have enough say

Assembly elections 2018:Though the total number of men registered to vote exceed by over 37 million, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, female voter turnout was at an all-time high at 65.6%. Yet, voters are almost always thought of as men, and the issues that affect them are mostly written about in terms of how they affect men across class, caste and religion.

assembly elections Updated: Nov 27, 2018 14:33 IST
Dhamini Ratnam
Dhamini Ratnam
Hindustan Times, Indore
assembly elections 2018,assembly polls 2018,assembly elections news
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, female turnout was at an all-time high at 65.6%. (HT FIle / Representative Photo )

Saeeda bi, 50, sits on a threadbare carpet surrounded by stacks of paper — blank examination answer papers, sheets of a tabloid-size community newspaper, and pamphlets of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate for the upcoming state assembly elections — all waiting to be folded. She earns Rs100 for six hours of this work, which she has been doing since she was 12. When asked which issue carries the greatest urgency for her, she answers immediately, “Unemployment.” Her 32 year-old daughter, Shaheena, a postgraduate in Urdu, quit her job as a teacher in a private school after marriage. But her mother is keen that she works again. “When women work, their mindset changes. They realise they don’t have to sit at home waiting for their husbands to earn,” says Saeeda bi, whose husband is a retired auto-rickshaw driver.

Saeeda bi is one among India’s more than 415 million women voters. Though the total number of men registered to vote exceed by over 37 million, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, female voter turnout was at an all-time high at 65.6%. Yet, voters are almost always thought of as men, and the issues that affect them — agricultural subsidies, dams and irrigation, Goods and Services Tax (GST), unemployment — are mostly written about in terms of how they affect men across class, caste and religion.

The question of what women voters think is an important one, not least because it might encourage political parties to bring more women into their decision-making processes. The low figures of women in ministries are telling — in the 1952 Lok Sabha, 4.2% out of 489 members were women; currently, of the 543 members, only 11.2% are women. If there was adequate quality representation, wouldn’t the terrain of public policies and programmes look different?

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In contrast, the electoral participation of women — campaign activities, canvassing and making donations — has steadily increased. A 2017 article by Pravin Rai published in the journal South Asia Research, drew upon data gathered by the National Election Study 2009 conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. It found that the number of women with high participation levels in general election campaigns increased substantially from 13% in 1999 to 22% in 2009. It also found that “9 out of 10 women interested in politics voted in the general elections of 2009, compared with those who seemed disinterested in politics.”

Women’s interest in politics is particularly important to document. According to Rukmini S’s analysis, published in Scroll.in, of the Lok Foundation-CMIE pre-election survey of 2014, more women cited inflation and price rise than men, as factors that influenced their voting choices.

Radhabai, a 70-year-old former domestic worker residing in Indore’s Raghunandan Bagh would agree. “Things have become too expensive, it’s difficult to survive. Women need more employment, and better pay,” she says, adding that she earned Rs 500 a month. At the other end of the city in Bada Bangarda, where several hundred families from a city slum were rehabilitated three years ago, waste-picker Sangeeta, 31, says, “Everyone in my house is unemployed.” She cites the Swachh Bharat Mission as a cause because the city has streamlined its waste-picking system according to the central government scheme. Several waste-pickers like her have been lost jobs as access to their waste has been curtailed.

Would thinking of women as a vote bank help? When the BJP released its manifesto for the Madhya Pradesh polls, it included a separate document for women with promises such as the introduction of a “female access to justice” scheme for women’s security. The 973-point Congress party manifesto in turn promises R10,000 unemployment allowance for one young member of the family for three years, and R51,000 for a woman’s wedding. In the 2015 Bihar assembly elections, Shamika Ravi and Mudit Kapoor analysed Election Commission data to see if re-election prospects of politicians are affected differently by male and female voters, and concluded that women are indeed “agents of change”.

What does it take to be an agent of change?

In her 2017 research paper Strength in Numbers: How Women’s Groups Can Close India’s Political Gender Gap, Soledad Prillaman from the University of Oxford found that being part of Self Help Groups had a positive impact on all measures of non-voting political participation — attending village assembly meetings, making a claim on the panchayat and on the district block officials—on the rural women of MP who were part of her study.

Why does this matter? Sarah Khan, a doctoral researcher at the University of Columbia, offers an elegant explanation. In a working paper of her dissertation, Khan points out that gender hierarchy within the household shapes the content of men’s and women’s political preferences. Due to the lower value ascribed to household work, women’s preferences are valued differently. Khan finds that women’s unwillingness to express a dissenting view on political issues within the household potentially extends to environments outside the household, which in turn, affects their civic participation.

Thus, even if women-centric policies are promised, it is essential that women have greater contact with all levels of government, and their opinion—both at home, and state—is taken seriously.

First Published: Nov 27, 2018 13:48 IST