We are in the midst of our national elections which is a fascinating exercise in democracy for one of the world’s largest populations. Safecity and SheThePeople conducted a joint survey to find out how women vote and what do they want from their elected leaders.
We surveyed 234 urban women mainly from Mumbai and Delhi and some of the results were surprising. Whilst almost 40% of women have voted before, only 22% view their parties from a gender lens. The women were unanimous that no one party over another had a better record in fielding and electing women candidates. In fact, running for office Eighty-one percent want political parties to field more women candidates and 80% felt diversity in politics is important. Some felt that regional parties especially in South India had better representation of women candidates.
Almost all the women were in agreement about supporting and encouraging Dalit and Adivasi women entering politics and 80% said that the Women’s Reservation Bill would result in more women in parliament.
Although 73% of women said they had women candidates in their constituency, only 57% said that the women candidates won. Eighty-two percent said that creating a women’s vote bank would help in making a unanimous women’s voice heard in politics. Surprisingly, less than 70% actually voted for a woman candidate.
As I looked through the responses and read through the discussions on social media, I was reminded of the fact that India has less than 12% women in Parliament, which is below the global average of 24%. This needs to change if we want better governance, inclusion of all voices and perspectives and a more dynamic leadership.
Some of the suggestions given by the women in the survey are:
- Encourage more women to stand for elections and give them party tickets.
In the first phase of the elections less than 8% of the total 1,271 candidates contesting are women. This is despite the promises of various parties to have 33% or more women candidates. One reason for this low figure could be that women are hesitant to take up politics as a career. Whilst another could be that parties don’t give them tickets. These reasons are easily rectifiable. Boosting the confidence of women to stand for office might take some effort. They need to be made comfortable to not only get involved in participating in the political process but also ensuring their voices are heard. However, women are very knowledgeable about the issues challenging most families – price of commodities, health of their families, education of their children, etc. Actively giving them a chance to stand for elections can not only tilt gender norms but also change the way women are perceived in society by themselves as well as their male peers. As one of our respondents said, “Treat women like people, not reproductive organs”.
- Ensure the quotas are fulfilled. There has to be gender balance.
More women involved in politics would lead to better women’s empowerment. Whilst at the moment we have low numbers and the need of the hour is to increase the percentage of women in politics, we must also make an attempt to improve the quality. Most of the women surveyed said they would prefer meritocracy over reservations. However, numbers do matter as women can also support women, irrespective of party lines, when it comes to common issues. I was informed by a peer at the Yale World Fellows program that in Rwanda, if a quota is not filled, the vacant seat remains till it is filled, thus forcing the party to find the women. This has led Rwanda to have one of the highest numbers of women parliamentarians.
- Provide women with training and an eco-system of support.
If we must have meritocracy in selecting women, we need to provide the right training, education and support system. At the moment, the starting point is not a level playing field and women are at a disadvantage given their poor access to finances, low education levels and availability of time to dedicate to this work. But we have seen when there is support available, women thrive in their political careers. Our Panchayat system and the Mumbai BMC have over the years been successful in getting more women representatives. The US Congress has recently elected huge numbers of women because the Democratic party invested in women candidates and provided them with training and support. Another respondent said, “Let talented young educated women take the charge.”
- Include more women’s voices in the creation of manifestos and policy-making.
Issues like maternity leave, sexual violence against women, marital rape, maternal and reproductive health do not impact only women but society at large. How can you have effective policies if women are not part of decision making? We have seen the extraordinary work of Atishi Marlena in Delhi where she has transformed the public school system. Rema Rajeshwari from the police force has effectively dealt with fake news on whatsapp. These are just some women doing extraordinary things. Imagine if more women had a chance to contribute in a meaningful way without fear or intimidation.
- Take proactive stands on issues that impact women.
One of our respondents rightly said that, “The one who takes power has to be sensitized towards ‘gender neutrality and social equity’.” Safety and security are important issues which most of the women raised. They were concerned that it was being treated lightly and demanded an effective and swift justice system. Other areas of concern were equal pay at work and the unpaid work at home. A respondent insists that gender equality and pro-women schemes should be placed on the same level as national growth and development.
So, whilst the elections are still on, we hope that we can place gender on the agenda of political parties and women will take their vote seriously. This is the moment where we can elect the right leadership with a focus on policies that matter.