“The gradual emergence of women as an electoral power is an encouraging development for Indian democracy,” say Kanta Singh and Vrinda Handa.

The recently concluded elections for State Assemblies present similar trends witnessed earlier in terms of voter turnout. Not only more people voted this time but the number of female voters increased by 1-4 per cent.

Key Takeaways:

  • In the recently concluded elections for State Assemblies, the number of female voters increased by 1-4 per cent.
  • In the 16th General Election, women accounted for nearly 48% of the overall electorate, in line with India’s sex ratio.
  • An increase in female literacy coupled with greater voter education has led to enhanced political awareness among women voters.
  • Initiatives like the Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation Programme by ECI are hugely important for removing the gender gap in electoral participation.

The narrative of increased political participation of women has been one of the most interesting features of Indian democracy in the past few decades. It was not very long ago when political leaders ignored the female voters completely since conventionally men decided on who the family should vote for. Political parties did not have a separate strategy to either understand the aspirations of women voters or address them in the political agenda.

It was not very long ago when political leaders ignored the female voters completely since conventionally men decided on who the family should vote for.

The rise in female voters in Lok Sabha elections has been phenomenal in the last 50 years from 49.11 per cent in 1971 to 65.45 in 2014 while male voter turnout has grown only slightly, from 60.87 per cent to 67 per cent in the same period. The gender gap in voter turnout in national elections in India has gradually reduced from 16.71% in 1962 to 1.55% in 2014. In the 16th General Election, women accounted for nearly 48% of the overall electorate, in line with India’s sex ratio. In fact, in 16 out of 35 States and Union Territories, women voter turnout was higher than men. The highest female turnout was reported in Lakshadweep (88.42%). (Source: Election Commission of India)

Enhanced political awareness among women voters

This change in India can be attributed to a combination of push and pull factors. An increase in female literacy coupled with greater voter education has led to enhanced political awareness among women voters. Additionally, reservation for women in local bodies has contributed towards an upsurge in female voter turnout. Some researchers speculate that increasing collectivization of women through microfinance networks might have added to political awareness as well. Moreover, better outreach through media, social platforms and targeted campaigns by the Election Commission of India (ECI) and State Election Commissions have influenced women to go out and vote. Safety at polling booths and improved transportation have also helped women to exercise their voting right.

An increase in female literacy coupled with greater voter education has led to enhanced political awareness among women voters.

While it is difficult to document the exact reasons for change in voting behaviour patterns in the case of female voters, more and more women have started to voice the issues that disproportionately affect them like public safety, alcoholism, healthcare, education, water and sanitation which earlier had often taken a backseat due to their historical political disengagement. The gradual emergence of women as an electoral power is an encouraging development for Indian democracy. It is likely to ensure greater focus on women-centric/social issues and bring more women to the fore in electoral politics.

The gradual emergence of women as an electoral power is an encouraging development for Indian democracy.

How Bihar elections of 2015 were a game changer

As Indian women have become more aware, political parties have started to take note of the changing tide and now they are increasingly attempting to reach out to them. Bihar elections of 2015 were a game changer in terms of the political clout of women voters.  Nitish Kumar understood this change early on and promised to ban alcohol in the State which was one of the major demands of the women’s groups.  Consequently, women came out in large numbers and brought him to power. On winning election, he implemented the same in Bihar and now advocates for a nationwide extension of prohibition. The 2016 assembly elections in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, where women voters played a big role in determining the verdict are a testimony to the same trend.

Growing electoral participation of women

As a result of growing electoral participation of women, the election manifestos of all political parties are now peppered by promising prevention of gender-based violence, ensuring safe spaces for women and children, access to safe drinking water, loans for women entrepreneurs, agricultural credit and lower rates of interest, etc.

This, however, does not mean that women have become a ‘political constituency’. The agenda points in the manifestos have had mere token value so far. The political rallies and public events are very masculine spaces and there is hardly any platform for women to make political leaders listen to their specific needs and issues. Improving women’s participation in voting holds the key to greater voter turnout and socio-political gender parity.

The political rallies and public events are very masculine spaces and there is hardly any platform for women to make political leaders listen to their specific needs and issues.

Women’s participation in politics can be a reinforcing factor since it brings new perspectives, approaches and momentum to empowerment initiatives. It also serves the dual purpose of garnering additional votes since minute differences in voting patterns of men and women can significantly impact the overall results. Initiatives like the Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation Programme by ECI are hugely important for removing the gender gap in electoral participation.

Initiatives like the Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation Programme by ECI are hugely important for removing the gender gap in electoral participation.

Representation of women

Beyond participation, the issue of representation of women in highest decision-making bodies remains a sore point for women. There is a lack of consensus amongst political parties to increase the representation of women in the Parliament or State Assemblies even though the issue gets listed in the manifestos of all major parties, election after election. Taking a cue from global experiences, the ‘voluntary party quota’ system can be adopted to ensure adequate representation of women in the Indian political arena. Political parties can reserve seats for women till the time adequate representation of women has been achieved.

Taking a cue from global experiences, the ‘voluntary party quota’ system can be adopted to ensure adequate representation of women in the Indian political arena.

It is only when there is wider representation in politics, that institutional cultures can change, and women’s issues take centre-stage. A realization about the importance of gender-based political collectivisation (that cuts across caste, class, religion, age) is the first step towards the formation of a political constituency. If Indian women across the board come together on the issue of gender rights, they would constitute an extremely powerful block.

In coming years, men or families may not be able to coerce women to vote against their will but more and more women are going to take this call even when they seem to be towing the family line. It will make huge political sense for political parties to consider women as a separate constituency and serve them better. Any party which reads this writing on the wall will have electoral gains because going forward, women voters are significantly going to impact the outcome of elections.

This article has been co-authored by Kanta Singh and Vrinda Handa. The views expressed are the authors’ own.

Kanta Singh is a development professional with over 23 years of experience. Currently, she is the State Project Head of Haryana and Delhi NCR at United Nations Development Programme India.

Vrinda Handa is serving as a National UN Youth Volunteer at the United Nations Development Programme India. 

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