Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Women deserve a seat at high table

When asked why half his cabinet comprised of women, Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau replied: “Because it’s 2015."

It’s 2015 in India, too, and Bihar has just delivered its assembly verdict. Nobody imagines that Nitish Kumar’s cabinet is going to have half, or even a tiny fraction of women. Not even close.

If headline writers have been euphoric—Women voters skew state poll results; Power shift in Bihar; High female turnout helps Grand Alliance win—it is because women voters in the state outnumbered men: 60.57% to 53.41%. When you consider that Bihar has a sex ratio of only 916 women for every 1,000 men, this fact is even more remarkable.

Should the Grand Alliance of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad be sending out thank-you cards to the women voters of the state? It’s early to say conclusively how women voted—or even that they voted as a bloc. But in a study of the 2005 Bihar assembly re-election—caused by the fact that no party emerged a winner in the election earlier that year—Brookings Institution India found the winners changed in constituencies where women turned out in larger numbers to vote.

“For traditional patriarchal societies, this is a remarkable political evolution when women can break away from the established mores of society and vote independently from their husbands and fathers," wrote Shamika Ravi from Brookings.

Ten years later, this is how political parties acknowledged the power of the woman voter: they slashed the number of tickets they gave them to contest elections.

The Janata Dal (United), or JDU, was down to 9.9% women contestants, from 17% in 2010. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was down to 8.9% women, from 12.8% the last time around. And the Congress fielded 10.5% women, down from 15.6% in 2010. These are parties that are publicly committed to 33% reservation for women in Parliament and assemblies to ensure greater gender representation.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), despite Lalu Prasad’s public opposition to the reservation bill, was marginally more generous, fielding 9.9% women, up from 7.1% in 2010.

When male-dominated political parties are asked why they are so loath to fielding women contestants, they usually cite winnability as the reason.

Yet, in 2010, 22 of the 24 women who contested on a JDU ticket and 11 of the 13 women who contested on a BJP ticket won.

To be fair, Nitish Kumar has, since his 2005 victory, been mindful of his female voters.

In 2006, Bihar became the first state to increase the representation of women in panchayats from 33% to 50%. In 2013, he announced 35% reservation for women in police jobs. And various schemes such as the one where cycles were distributed free to girls who attend school have resulted in a surge in the number of girls enrolled in both elementary and secondary schools.

Interestingly, a study undertaken by Mint with data journalism site IndiaSpend just before the 2014 general election looked at the link between gender empowerment and the representation of women in elections.

We found that states with the best sex ratios and gender indices (female literacy, maternal mortality, etc.) elected the least number of women to Parliament. Kerala, for instance, had no woman MP but in Punjab and Haryana, 31% and 20% of all MPs were women.

One reason for this is that women in politics, particularly in states with low gender indices, tend to be backed by powerful political families and fall under the entitled category of the “bahu-beti" brigade.

In other words, states with entrenched patriarchy prop up proxies for male politicians; women who can be controlled.

A second reason could be that women from the more backward states are aware that even if they were to contest elections, they are less likely to win due to a lack of access to money and muscle power. They simply do not have the ability or space to manoeuvre and manipulate politics that are deeply steeped in patriarchy, unless, of course, they are backed by their powerful families.

Denied active participation by older parties steeped in an older way of thinking, women from states with better sex ratios, on the other hand, are more likely to seek representation through the process of voting rather than contesting.

Yet, even as they display such obvious reluctance to share political power with women, no party can afford to ignore the woman voter. After all, in the 2014 general election, women voters outnumbered men in nine states, including Odisha, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh. In last year’s assembly elections in Jharkhand as well as Jammu and Kashmir, women voters again outnumbered men.

In Bihar this election, we saw a slew of promises: Nitish Kumar hinting at prohibition and assuring 35% reservation to women in state government jobs; the BJP and Congress both organizing state-level women’s meetings as early as April to encourage participation in the elections.

Poll promises and governance combined with development policies are a good beginning. But the women who turn up in such large numbers to vote, reposing their faith in democracy, deserve more. They deserve a seat at the high table, not just as voters but also as the elected.

Because it’s 2015.

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