With the General Elections coming up in 2019, we are beginning an impactful series of columns on Women and the Vote. Women are an integral part of the voting demographic, but are often underrepresented and neglected when it comes to the political landscape of this country. While we do have powerful women leaders in our country, the average woman in our country needs a voice that represents her in Parliament and her needs dealt with. In the past year, India ranked first on the Thomson Reuters gender violence perception survey. Every day, the headlines have a case of sexual violence against women and the girl child glaring at us. From safety in the streets to the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament to the wage gap in corporate India, we hope this series will discuss the burning issues that women in this country need brought to the fore.

“Humara kaun sunta hai?”

Located at the end of a dingy bylane in Noida’s Harola is a school building where around 80 women have gathered to attend a menstrual hygiene camp on a searing afternoon in May. The children are back from school and are hopefully milling around a tray of samosas. Whirring ceiling fans are dispiritedly circulating the hot air as women, their heads half-covered with dupattas, sit around waiting for free menstrual cups and a demonstration on how to use them. As the event begins, I stand at the back and chat with some of them on our shared problems — stubborn toddlers bent on self harm, rising prices of food, managing money and things no one asks our opinions on.

#WomenAndTheVote

“Who listens to us?” pipes up a woman in a pink salwar kameez. I nod in agreement. “Chunao mard logon ke liye hai” (Elections are for men). The scale and nature of our problems vary, but essentially we share a common gripe — our voices do not count in the five-year churn of electoral politics. Elections in India have always been fought along caste and communal lines and lost on anti-incumbency. Schemes for women, including those on their wellness, security and economic independence, have figured as mere talking points in speeches at rallies. Gender politics has never played a dominant role in deciding elections in India and with aggressive outreach, political parties can change that.

It’s important to remember that women have always existed as a separate, unique vote bank with specific needs that political parties have never thought to address as they would the complex mathematics of geographical vote shares. Perceived automatically as the natural extensions of the upper class, SC/ST or Muslim vote bases politicians’ eye during elections, women’s voices have been drowned under issues that have limited bearing on their lives. The absence of unapologetic feminist voices across the political spectrum — the men and women who can rally women across the silos — is alarming. Even the existing political voices raised for the rights of women lose steam when it comes to addressing caste and religion, the two contentious pillars on which most electoral strategies stand, treading cautiously around their right to self-expression in order not to offend the men who control their homes and in many instances their votes.

The absence of unapologetic feminist voices across the political spectrum — the men and women who can rally women across the silos — is alarming.

Several recent legislations can be incentives for political parties to start formulating a comprehensive plan of harnessing the might of India’s 49 percent.

Grassroots participation

A political movement led by women to counter the politics of muscle is an idea whose time has come. It starts with recruitment and ascertaining responsibilities — both at the grassroots and in the corridors of power — and participation in the decision-making process. During a chat, a woman politician told me that men are most reluctant to share the political space, making it difficult for women to come up in politics. Add to that a culture of institutionalised misogyny and the path to representation becomes difficult.

The biggest irony is that the political parties are failing to read the writing on the wall. Recently, the Chief Electoral Officer in Karnataka election confirmed a record turnout of women voters in the state, a repeat of a pattern from West Bengal and Tamil Nadu in 2016. One possible reason for this could be the sustained voters’ participation campaigns led by EC across social platforms, a model that can be replicated by all political parties to rally women.

Over the years, as women’s turnout increased, their voting patterns changed as well. According to a 2011 Centre For Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) study, there has been “a marked increase in voter turnout and election campaigning among women in India”. But women “continue to be under-represented in legislative bodies both at national and state level and within political parties” resulting in their “systematic exclusion from electoral competition on a gender basis”, the study also found.

According to a 2011 Centre For Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) study, there has been “a marked increase in voter turnout and election campaigning among women in India”.

It’s a problem political parties have to address. They have to find a way to induct women functionaries at state level and help them come up through mentorship and hard work.

When there is ample representation, only then will women find their seat in Parliament. One of the biggest problems women face in participatory politics at the grassroots is the ‘rule by proxy’. Indian Constitution guarantees women, 33 percent reservation in Panchayati Raj institutions. It has empowered several women village council leaders to enter mainstream politics and change the system from within. However, also common is the systematic patriarchal subversion of the process. Often, male family members govern by proxy. Unless political parties focus on capacity building, the system will continue to disenfranchise the women who step up to lead. It benefits all if women head responsible positions ground up, as a UN Women study found. It stated that the number of drinking water projects in areas with women-led panchayats was 62 per cent higher than in those with men-led village councils.

Listening to women voters

Often political parties underestimate the power of listening. In the run-up to the elections, politicians should go from town to town exclusively listening to their women voters. They will realise that there’s inherent anger at being excluded from the decision-making process — be it demonetisation or agrarian crisis — on matters that affect their livelihood and wellbeing.

Women’s Bills

The onus should be on organisations that work at the grassroots to routinely discuss the slew of legislations that directly affect women to ensure they are involved and aware of where various political parties stand in the spectrum of women’s rights. Be it the Triple Talaq, the Women’s Reservation Bill, Maternity Benefit Amendment Act (2017), the Transgender Bill, Criminal Amendment Bill, the Anti-Trafficking Bill, the exemption of tax on sanitary products, anti-foeticide campaigns or cooking gas scheme, there should be a nationwide drive to raise awareness about initiatives that directly affect women.

It’s crucial to remember that be it the lynching of Muslims by Hindu gau rakshaks, political killings in Kerala, the stateless masses in Assam, farm widows in Vidharbha, or students in Kashmir, it is the women who are most affected by a crisis.

Harnessing women’s anger and frustration

While rape laws have been tightened post the brutal gangrape of a young woman physiotherapist in Delhi in 2012, sexual assault on women and children continue unabated — in shelter homes, in conflict zones and in cities and villages. It’s crucial to remember that be it the lynching of Muslims by Hindu gau rakshaks, political killings in Kerala, the stateless masses in Assam, farm widows in Vidharbha, or students in Kashmir, it is the women who are most affected by a crisis. A political party that can make women central to their election campaign — and focus the gender lens on all other poll issues such as jobs, reservation, religion, statehood, human rights, free speech, employment, agriculture, economy, and growth — will automatically have deep access to a core vote base.

According to the 2017 Women in Politics Map report, India ranks globally at 148th in representation of women in executive government. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women report found that women make up 11.8 per cent of the Lok Sabha and 11 per cent of the Rajya Sabha, figures that should shame the Indian political establishment for not doing enough to bring women into the workforce.

Women are fed up. Women are angry. Most importantly, women want a toe in the door as India goes to vote in 2019. They will side with any progressive political party willing to open the door.

Rituparna Chatterjee is a feminist journalist and writes on gender parity, women’s rights and social inequality. She started her career with The Statesman newspaper in Delhi and has worked in digital and print media for the last 15 years. 

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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