Political parties and voters are equally to blame for the low representation of women in Parliament. Throughout history, women have fought all kinds of odds to achieve success in a male-dominated political world. From Cleopatra to Catherine the Great, Queen Victoria to Rani Lakshmi Bai and modern leaders — Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Sheikh Hasina and Aung San Suu Kyi — the list is impressive.
Despite this, women are still under-represented in parliaments around the world. Even today they constitute less than a fourth of the world’s lawmakers.
One factor driving this is a bias on the part of political parties, the notion that women candidates cannot be relied on to win elections. They are believed to lack access to the political networks and resources that men have.
This is the perception even in India, despite its history of strong women leaders. That includes not just Indira Gandhi, who was part of the dynasty that dominated Indian politics, but also completely self-made women — from Didi (Mamata Banerjee) and Amma (Jayalalithaa) to Behenji (Mayawati).
Since winnability is apparently the only criteria for political parties, it is not surprising that they tend to field far fewer women than men as candidates. One can see this in the current Lok Sabha elections as well; there are only 53 women among the 419 candidates announced by the Congress. It is worse with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has only 37 women out of its total 423 candidates so far.
Et tu, voter?
However, it is not only the parties that are to be blamed. Even Indian voters seem to have a bias against women candidates, at least in local Gram Panchayat elections. A recent Harvard University survey of such local body polls in West Bengal found villagers consistently rating women candidates below men. The general perception was that women leaders aren’t as effective as men in taking decisions and framing policies.
This, in Didi’s own State and in a country whose only woman Prime Minister (Indira Gandhi) was never known to shy away from taking bold and swift decisions — whether to do with the Green Revolution or bank nationalisation!
Not only does India have a very poor record of sending female politicians to Parliament, there has also been little change over time.
In 1997, there were 7.2 per cent women in the Lok Sabha and 7.8 per cent in the Rajya Sabha. Overall, India ranked 65th among the 177 countries for which the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) collected statistics.
Over 15 years later, in 2014, the situation wasn’t any better, with women forming only 11.4 per cent of parliamentarians — both in the Lok Sabha (following the 2009 elections) and the Rajya Sabha. As a result, India’s rank fell further to 111 among the 189 nations covered in IPU’s 2014 analysis.
Such abysmal levels of political representation are, perhaps, only reflective of the extent of gender inequality in society.
India ranked 132nd out of 148 countries in the 2012 Gender Inequality Index of the United Nations Development Programme. Even our neighbours — Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and, of course, China — were ahead of us. The entrenched party and voter bias against women candidates is clearly an extension of this general phenomenon.
If voters think women will not make good politicians and are less competent than men in lobbying for funds to look after the needs of their constituents, they are likely to refrain from electing women. In turn, political parties will choose to nominate fewer women, making it more difficult for them to get elected and dispel the myth of their not being capable leaders. That’s a real vicious cycle we need to break.
One way to do it is through affirmative action to include women in the political process. The least this will do is force parties to actively look for potential women candidates.
Today, they don’t even make an effort, confident in their assumption that women and winnability simply don’t go together.
And since there aren’t enough women candidates, this assumption is shared by voters as well.
Many countries have introduced legal quotas for women in local and national assemblies with the same motive — exposure to women politicians will improve people’s perceptions on their capability and reduce both party and voter bias against women candidates.
While India has successfully implemented such quotas for elections to Panchayats, the Bill seeking to reserve a minimum number of seats for women in Parliament and State legislatures is still pending.
The evidence from mandatory representation to local bodies points to a clear change in people’s outlook on the effectiveness of women leaders. Research by the Harvard economists found that constituencies that had reservations for women in two previous elections were more likely to have a greater number of both contesting and winning women candidates, than those with no exposure to an elected female leader.
It only means that having a woman leader diminishes the voter bias against women candidates. There is every reason, then, to believe, from the experience of Gram Panchayat elections, that implementation of a mandatory women’s quota in Parliament and State assemblies will lead to similar results on a national scale.
Interestingly, while both the BJP and the Congress manifestos commit to one-third reservation for women, both in Parliament and State Assemblies, neither party is fielding anywhere close to that many female candidates in the current elections!
Instead of blaming each other for the failure to pass the women’s reservation bill, our parties could learn from Austria, Cameroon, Canada, France, Sweden or South Africa.
Political parties in these countries have voluntarily adopted policies assigning a certain percentage of seats for women in electoral lists, parliament and government, leading to an overall increase in women’s participation in the political arena.
A legally mandated quota may, indeed, not even be necessary if political parties are willing to adopt a ‘voluntary’ quota for women. Until then, we can only urge voters to be unbiased against any particular gender when voting for candidates in their constituencies.
Sarangi is a Professor of Economics and Jha a doctoral student at Louisiana State University
Read more here — http://m.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/gender-bias-in-indian-elections/article5937987.ece/