Women leaders, and women voters, matter
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reconstituted council of ministers of 77 members includes 11 women, the highest number of women ministers since 2004. The current Lok Sabha, too, has the highest number of women, at 14%. Some have celebrated this, but surely a celebration of a 14% representation is a worrying one, underlining a very low bar.
The number of women candidates in elections remains regrettably small: 9% in Kerala, 7.8% in Assam, 11% in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, in the recent state elections. India’s status on women’s political participation has been underwhelming, highlighted by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2021, where India ranked 140 among 156 participating countries, faring the worst in terms of political empowerment.
But political participation is not only about being elected to governance structures. The larger political story includes the role of voters, a role in which women’s numbers have increased. A study by Shamika Ravi and Mudit Kapoor found that the sex ratio of voters (the number of women voters for every 1,000 men voters) increased from 715 to 883 between the 1960s and 2000s. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, women voters were more than 48% of total voters in 23 states/Union Territories (UTs) and overtook the number of men voters in 10 states/UTs.
It is instructive to examine why women’s political participation is important. Gender-based equity is unarguably a key reason, sufficient in itself, some may argue. But the implication of women’s political participation on social policy and development priorities is equally important; with voters and elected representatives bearing a clear influence on social policies.
The presence of women as political leaders and their participation in policymaking bodies have the potential to influence the direction of policy. Studies by Sonia Bhalotra, Damian Clarke, and others show how the election of women as political leaders has influenced public policy priorities to favourably impact maternal health. Their work found women politicians place greater priority on investing in local public health infrastructure and on interventions focusing on appropriate health-seeking behaviours directed at improvements in maternal health.
The impact of women leaders in local governance has similarly been visible in priority to social policy. Studies conducted by Esther Duflo, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, and other scholars, have shown a greater priority to health, nutrition, water, and other social goods in villages with women panchayat leaders.
But it is not only in their leadership roles that women can influence the direction of policy attention; their role as voters is no less significant. It is well established that women’s vote is not necessarily influenced by family members; as evident from a 2019 survey Lokniti survey. A paper by Grant Miller highlighted the impact of suffrage rights for women in the United States (US) as resulting in greater attention and support from politicians to women’s preferences, thereby influencing policy priorities. An eye on the constituency of women voters led to increased public health spending, which, in turn, enabled interventions on behaviour change campaigns that reduced child mortality.
In India too, women voters have been known to influence policy priorities, as they come out to vote in large numbers. Not missing their increased numbers, politicians have responded to their needs, as reflected in Bihar, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu, to name a few states.
The policy prioritisation of maternal and child health in Tamil Nadu has for long been influenced by the large base of women voters. Expanding the space for women to voice and assert their priorities clearly can and does influence policy priorities in the social sector, and specifically health.
The lack of attention to health and other social policy areas in India has been a topic of discussion for long, with the political economy of social policy becoming a key area of interrogation. While there could be several political determinants of policy, the key among these includes tangible demands from the electorate and the inherent preferences of policymakers. If priorities and policy preferences of men and women are distinctly different, the gendered constitution of the electorate as also policymakers will likely impact the direction of policy priorities, in a competing policy space.
Public health and other social services stand to gain from the increased representation of women in policy platforms. As elected representatives, their numbers remain woefully small, except at the third-tier of governance. It is not that political parties don’t have adequate numbers of women workers or that women are not politically engaged. The farmers’ protests and the Shaheen Bagh protests are two of several examples that point to women asserting their political positions. A critical mass of women leaders offers them the potential confidence to support agendas different from others and ensure their voice is heard.
Reservation for women, discussed and debated for long, needs urgent action from a variety of perspectives, not the least of which includes greater attention to India’s social policy.
The distinction in preferences based on identity suggests that ensuring adequate representation at both the policymaker level as well as the voter pool should be a key objective to ensure that different policy areas get the attention they need.
Sandhya Venkateswaran is a member of Lancet Citizen’s Commission on Reimagining India’s Health System
The views expressed are personal