Urmila Singh has been helping women in Bihar nurture their political ambitions for over two decades now. She remembers how the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in 1993 had reserved a third of seats in all local bodies for women, and how Bihar was the first state in the country to increase that provision to 50 percent in 2006. This has since led to a series of positive changes as far as political participation of women in Bihar is concerned, Singh says, but there is still a gap. One that she, as the founder of Sakhiree, a local NGO that works to empower women politically and socially, is working hard to fill, as dates for assembly elections in the state come nearer.
The gap that Singh is referring to is this: Bihar registered more women voters than men, with 59.92 percent women, against 55.26 percent men, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, according to a report by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR). In the same elections, however, only 9 percent (or 56 individuals) of total candidates contesting from Bihar were women. In the end, of the 40 MPs that won in the state, only three were women.
As far as the state assembly elections are concerned, while chief minister Nitish Kumar has repeatedly come to power on the strength of women’s vote, only 28 women MLAs were elected to the Vidhan sabha (state legislative assembly) after the 2015 assembly elections in Bihar, which is six fewer than 34 in 2010.
So ahead of the state polls likely to be held in October / November, Singh says her aim is to get all political parties in Bihar to field 50 percent female candidates; right now, the representation of women in the State Assembly is barely 11.5 percent, falling from 14 percent in 2010.
This disparity is similar across states in the country. “Purush satta samaj se ladne ke liye mahilaon ko aage aana hoga,” says Singh—Unless women come forward to fight the male-dominated political system, and make their presence felt in the Parliament where they have a say in the policies that impact them, no real, lasting momentum can be achieved in the social, economic and political empowerment of women.
Politicians, activists and concerned members of the public have been championing the cause of equal gender representation in politics for decades now. The World Economic Forum, in its 2020 Global Gender Gap report, also states that when it comes to bridging the various areas of inequality between men and women in India, the political representation is on a faster rise compared to other aspects. Specifically, while India was ranked as low as 144 out of 153 countries when it comes to gaps in economic empowerment and 150 out of 153 countries for inequalities in quality of health and survival, the country was in the 18th position when it came to political empowerment of women.
The Women’s Reservation Bill, which reserves one-third (33 percent) of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies was introduced by Parliament way back in 1996, but no subsequent government has passed it. After the Rajya Sabha passed it in 2010, the Lok Sabha has not voted on it till date, despite the Bill being pushed by national parties like the Indian National Congress (INC) and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of the general elections last year.
“Money, muscle and misogyny has marred the political careers of women in this country,” says Kanksshi Agarwal, a senior technology policy researcher at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR). She is the founder of the Netri Foundation, a bootstrapped incubator and accelerator that helps women to realise and succeed in their political ambitions.
Agarwal runs training, research and advocacy efforts for women who aspire to have political careers but are unsure or hesitant about how to proceed. She has observed that even today, party structures are not created to accommodate women, and various stereotypes and prejudices govern the roles or portfolios party leaders think women can ‘handle’. “The way political parties restrict women into their mahila wing and do not give them a chance to be mainstream is the biggest problem,” she says. “Issues that concern women should not be boxed separately, as all issues affect women. Policy needs to have a gendered approach and that can happen only when women are represented adequately in the legislature.”
In order to help the women themselves adopt a gendered perspective free of myths or preconceived biases, Agarwal’s training modules teach them to identify key issues and create linkages between their personal experiences and public spaces. This could be policies ranging from menstruation and harassment to unemployment and pay parity.
Since she launched the nonprofit organisation last year, Agarwal and team have trained over 250 women across Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, and are currently working with women in Bihar. Each workshop is around three-hours long and usually comprises a group of about 30 women, who are taken through aspects like the nomination process, how to pick a party symbol and how to build skills and capacity to campaign effectively, apart from being helped to shatter misconceptions like women can only contest on women’s seats and cannot take up a man’s seat, or that they have to be affiliated with a political party to be able to contest.
“Many women also need to be convinced that they can or need to run,” says Agarwal, who also helps these aspirants use data as a tool to identify, understand and build solutions for issues, apart from teaching them to build a strong election narrative around themselves using the basics of political communication.
Activists and experts agree that while 50 percent panchayat seats are reserved for women, most of them disappear from the next level of elections, much like engineering students or women in technology, who enroll in high numbers in college, but have low workforce participation and leadership presence. In politics too, the higher women go up the ladder, the more the chances of them being relegated to small, non-offending roles with no real decision-making capacity.
“Many of these panchayat leaders aspire to go higher, but they end up going back to the kitchen. They realise that they are doing great work but do not get a ticket,” says Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Shakti, a non-partisan collective of volunteers that is working toward improving political participation of women. After having launched nationwide campaigns ahead of the general elections last year, Shakti has now joined hands with over 120 organisations in Bihar, including Singh’s Sakhiree, to convince political parties to give 50 percent MLA tickets to women to ensure fair representation.
Krishnaswamy explains how inclusion of women in decision-making roles often gets left behind in the lead-up to an election. She points out, for instance, how the BJP has announced state in-charges for the election committees, which includes Devendra Fadnavis, Bhupendra Yadav and a “bunch of other names, but there is not one single woman… It’s been the same with other political parties too”, she says.
Explaining further about how the situation in Bihar is likely to play out, Krishnaswamy explains, “Right, only the election in-charge committees have been announced. Next, the alliance negotiation committees and candidate selection committees will be announced. You won’t see women there as well. Then, maybe, there will be a token woman in the manifesto committee, but there is not scope for much to do over there. So parties are very clear about these roles.”
She says the situation is similar in political parties across states, and gives the example of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu. The state goes into elections in less than a year away in 2021. “DMK is setting up its base, so now is the time to look at district in-charges and other decision-making roles within the party. But Kanimozhi [president of the women’s wing of the DMK since 2015] has been championing popular cause after popular cause, but has not been given a key party post.”
Shakti’s modus operandi has always been working with grassroots organisations to get political parties to field more women candidates. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has changed things for them, especially when it comes to large gatherings and meetings with volunteers and stakeholders. Their current campaign, therefore, involves reaching out and mobilising sarpanches in the panchayats, women in the nyaya panchayats (local courts) and women MLAs, who take selfies alongside a written demand as a way of lending their support for 50 percent tickets for women in the upcoming elections.
“These are elected representatives speaking with the weight of the votes behind them, so their voice means a lot,” Krishnaswamy says. “What people do not realise is when a single woman works surrounded by men across government agencies ranging from public distribution systems to power, the men often do not listen to her or speak to her properly. So even the few women who are elected are not able to work optimally. This is why representation matters.” A simultaneous top-down and bottom-up approach is necessary, she says, because one has to alter decisions taken on the top by two or three men, while mobilising the voices of women from the grassroots upward.
Netri Foundation has also taken its training program online, conducting five sessions between September 5 and October 3. These will include experts from the World Bank, United Nations and the Indian School of Democracy, helping participants understand the use of technology in politics, electioneering and campaigning, teaching them how to address crowds or an audience, articulate issues, and build their public narrative.
Utilising technology is particularly important not only because of the restrictions posed by the pandemic, Agarwal says, but also to usher in long-term changes in the very nature and infrastructure of political campaigning. “Right now, there are various challenges that restrict women from conducting long physical campaign trails, right from the dominant presence of boisterous men to lack of washrooms,” she says.
Singh believes that apart from the system, even mindsets have to be changed, starting with the men in the households where women want to hold local governance posts. Even today, the husband, father-in-law, or sons of elected women representatives control their activities, including the smallest of tasks like signing documents or attending local meetings, where they insist the women should not go alone. “Purush maansikta ek bahut badi samasya hai,” she says. Navigating the regressive male mentality, egos and power dynamics is a huge challenge, which means that in the fight to help women represent themselves, the men have to be trained, motivated and mobilised too.
Singh is sure that the only way women can get out of these shackles is if more of them step into the Parliament or the state legislative assembly. “Their husbands and fathers-in-law cannot follow them there, and women will be able to think and act on their own,” she says, adding that once women will get more political exposure, they will be able to make decisions to better the lives of other women, including in areas like education and employment opportunities.
The good news, according to Singh, is that women are asking questions, stepping out of their homes and taking the initiative of being more participative in local governance. “Kadam toh badh chuka hai, shuruat ho chuki hai,” she adds. Women have started stepping forward, and change has begun.
MissRepresent is a fortnightly blog about news and trends, told through the lens of gender and sexuality. It will regularly feature incisive commentary, and voices of women whose work extends within and beyond the realms of gender justice. Read more here
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
Check out our end of season subscription discounts with a Moneycontrol pro subscription absolutely free. Use code EOSO2021. Click here for details.