Where are the women? And why should we care?

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female vtersWhile the democratic model is based on the idea of representational equality, it often ends up privileging the traditional social order. A diverse and truly representative elected body is reflective of an inclusive and progressive society. Under-representation of certain groups in politics, and in polling, is generally reflective of their depressed societal status.This post explores the space that women occupy in the Indian political system.

Methodology: The post uses data from the Election Commission of India to explore the gender dimension of representation along two lines: a) Female voters, and b) Female candidates.

a) Female Voters: Map 1 looks at the % of women who voted over the total votes polled. (As always, click on the maps for an enlarged image)

b) Female Candidates: Deciding to be a little more ambitious than just voting figures, I looked at women candidates contesting elections and women candidates who were elected.  I further segregated female candidates along caste lines to analyze representation from women in the Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribes. Map 2 looks at the percentage of female MPs from each state.

Results: a) Female voters while generally representing more than 40% of total voters, consistently poll at rates lower than 50%. 13 states saw women represent less than 47% of the total voting share. Madhya Pradesh had the worst polling statistics with women making up only 40.3% of the total votes. In second and third place where Jammu & Kashmir (40.8%) and Uttar Pradesh (42.0%), respectively. Gujarat came in at 4th with only 43.64% of the votes being attributed to women. Kerala, Manipur and Meghalaya saw women polling between 50-51% of the votes.

State wise data on female voting

b) Female Candidates: Unsurprisingly, female representatives are few and far in between in most states. Women constitute over 10% of the total elected candidates in only two states: Punjab (10.26%) and Meghalaya (16.67%). 13 states in the Indian Union do not have a single female representative in the Indian Parliament. 

FemaleMPThe picture is even more abysmal when we look at women from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes. Both participation and results were significantly lower than that of women in the general category. Only 12 women from the Schedules Castes and 5 women from the Scheduled Tribes contested the election. To put this in perspective, Scheduled Castes makes up 16.2% of the Indian population and Scheduled Tribes consist of 8.2% of the population. Clearly, there is a shocking under-representation of these women in Indian elections. The states of Assam, Bihar, Haryana, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Chattisgarh did not have a single female contestant from the Scheduled Tribes. This is especially appalling in Chattisgarh considering that 31.8% of the state’s population is made up of Scheduled Tribes.

Why should we care?

A democracy allows each person to elect the candidate best suited to speak about their issues and interests. The idea makes a break from past ruling classes that were based on social ties, land ownership and other markers of privilege. Unfortunately, notional equity doesn’t manifest itself in practice. Traditional social hierarchy recreates itself in voting patterns and the profile of candidates who seek election. Certain communities, and their interests, are under-represented in electoral rolls and in the Parliament. The Indian state has tried to force equitable representation by allocating caste based quotas. A similar initiative to enforce gender based representation met with much protest and was eventually discarded.

Data shows lower rates of female polling and female candidates. Equal female voting is seen as an indicator of the political and social freedom of women in the society. A 1998 landmark study explored the role of social norms on female voting. Nearly 35% of the women in the study reported not voting due to social pressures. Women were also more likely to vote if they saw other women doing the same. It is also interesting to note that the states that fared the worst (M.P, J&K, U.P and Gujarat) in female voting also under perform on sex ratio and female literacy. There definitely seems to be a correlation between political freedom of women and other development indicators.  

While not arguing that only a female leader can represent women, it is true that the alarming lack of female candidates and members of Parliament reflects the social, political and economic status that women enjoy in the country. Presence of female leaders has been shown to affect perceptions of women and reduce their association with domestic activities. Consistent invisibility of disadvantaged groups from leadership positions reinforces their position in the social order. Further, exposure to female leaders was shown to substantially increase society’s expectations of women. A 2007 study in India showed that exposure to female leaders increased parents’ aspirations for their daughters and had significant impacts on their educational and labour outcomes. There is reason to believe that presence of female leaders from backward castes will work similarly for gender and caste stereotypes. Thus, female politicians, especially from the backward castes, could satisfy dual roles. Firstly, they signal the status of women in the social order of the country. Secondly, they influence societal perceptions of women and help in breaking social taboos.

It is clear that Indian politics, and society, needs to do better in terms of gender equity. Political parties should take an active look at their gender statistics and promote greater gender participation in the elections. Aside from the normative reasons for doing this, parties should also be promoted by selfish interests. These missing women voters represent untapped potential for national and regional parties. Fighting on the platform of equitable development and backing this claim by promoting more female candidates could deliver to these parties a powerful, and previously silent, voting bloc.


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