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Home >Opinion >Views >Opinion: Feminization of voters or women just a vote bank?

Elections in Odisha are known to throw up some surprises, sometimes going against the national trend. Since the 2014 general election, participation of women in voting has significantly increased and it has crossed the male percentage.

In the 2014 national elections, percentage of women who voted in Odisha was 74%, compared to 72% men. In the ongoing election also, women’s participation is very high and most likely, it will cross male percentage. Does it reflect a silent feminization of the Odisha electorate, or are women simply used as vote banks to benefit political parties?

It was late Biju Patnaik who introduced 33% reservation for women in Panchayati Raj institutions. Now, the percentage of reservation for women stands at 50% in those bodies. But of late, there has been greater emphasis on women’s empowerment through other means and self-help groups (SHGs) are encouraged to organize themselves to earn profits for themselves through different activities.

Studies in Odisha have shown that women SHGs have attained some degree of financial autonomy and this has changed their lives to some extent. But using SHG women as party cadre has important implications for the tightly contested elections this year. Ahead of elections, chief minister Naveen Patnaik announced interest-free loans up to 3 lakh for each SHG. As money, muscle and liquor increasingly influence elections, women SHGs are considered sites for safe and reliable investment. Opposition parties allege that the ruling party offered seed money to SHGs for electoral benefit without bringing structural reforms.

A few months before the elections, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) made a national campaign to give 33% seats in the national legislature to women. The party also named SHG member Pramila Bishoi as its Lok Sabha candidate from Aska. Even opposition parties like Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were seen talking about women in their manifestos as well as in their political discourse.

But the key question is whether using women as vote banks will transform their lives. The answer is negative as of now because of several reasons. First, women’s empowerment is largely confined to monetary aspects. Second, the political understanding is that women like the poor need charity to survive. There is no serious discussion on their employment opportunities.

As far as women candidates are concerned, except a few cases, all of them have strong political backgrounds. While several of them are from erstwhile royal families, others come from powerful political families. Unfortunately, none of the political parties have addressed grassroots women leadership issues. It is surprising to note that while 50% women are members in Panchayati Raj institutions of Odisha, their gradual mobility to state assembly or national level elections is not taking place.

From a distance, women featuring in political discourse is undoubtedly a positive development in Odisha politics. Political parties have at least started counting them as a political force. But there is an urgent need to focus on changing their lives through structural reforms. Political representation is a small step, but women have to be a part of the visible workforce.

Gyanranjan Swain is a political analyst and assistant professor at Ravenshaw University.

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