• Opinion
  • August 14, 2018
  • 8 minutes
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How to give India’s half billion women the voice they need in government

Opinion: Quotas, leader training and role models could all be critical

This opinion piece was written by Dr. Shruti Kapoor, a gender equality activist and founder of Sayfty. It can also be found on our gender equality newsfeed.


Seven decades after India’s independence, the presence of women in its national politics remains shockingly low. According to a report by the UN and Inter-Parliamentary Union, India ranks in the world’s bottom quartile — 148th globally — for female representation in executive government and parliament.

Just 11.8% of parliamentarians are female, and the current Modi government has only six female cabinet ministers.

Yet today, more than half a billion women and girls live in India. Their voices matter, and they must be included in the policy decisions, laws and legislation that shape their lives. Having more women in politics will be critical for India to tackle some of the most painful and pressing challenges facing its female population: dowry deaths, sex-selective abortion, sexual harassment and cyber-crimes.

The challenge

Indian politics has always been a male-dominated field — and several barriers continue to block change.

First: money. Political parties do not provide adequate financial support for women to contest elections, and few women have the resources to run off their own earnings. As the Economist recently reported, India’s female employment rate has tumbled from a low 35% in 2005 to an even lower 26% today. Even as the overall economy has doubled in size, nearly 10 million fewer women are in jobs.

Lack of finances is compounded by a lack of skills and training. According to the latest census data from 2011, only 65.46% of women in India are literate. Many do not know of their basic and political rights. And without formal education, most women miss out on the leadership skills essential in politics.

“Gender quotas at the local level have had a positive impact on rates of reporting rapes”

These challenges are linked to a final critical barrier: societal and cultural norms about gender. Most Indians just don’t think that women have the stomach for politics. Common stereotypes female politicians have to dispel include: “women cannot lead”, “women cannot focus on family and politics at the same time” and “women are not strong”. A patriarchal setup also means that Indian women still spend seven times more hours a day on unpaid work (like housework and childcare) than men.

For all the above reasons and more, women often lack insider knowledge and political networks. They fail to gather both the support and resources to nurture their political ambitions and constituencies.

Taking evidence-based action

These challenges are serious — but not insurmountable.

Quotas are one quick way to change cultures and norms. While controversial, they have precedent in India and have shown powerful impact at the local government level. 

In 1993, the 73rd and 74th amendments to the constitution implemented a 33% reservation policy for women at the panchayat (village council) and municipal level. This created 1,000,000 slots for women in local government, and female representation at the local level has increased steadily in the years since.

Moreover, studies show that gender quotas at the local level have had a positive impact on rates of reporting rapes amongst all women. And villages led by female council heads have been shown to spend more money on issues important for women and girls but rarely prioritised by male leaders — like water supply.

General elections are due to be held in India in April or May 2019. As we get closer, ever more people are discussing gender equality. One proposal on the table — the Women’s Reservation Bill — could make a radical difference. If passed, it will provide 33% reservation for women in India’s lower house of parliament and all state legislative assemblies (Vidhan Sabhas).

Beyond quotas, political leadership training programs for women have had success in other parts of the world. In Latin America, a six-month boot-camp for high potential women in the public sector — a partnership between national governments and the Inter-American Development Bank — is creating a new generation of female leaders.

In New Jersey, Rutgers University offers an electoral boot camp and a two-day, non-partisan training event that teaches women how to organise political campaigns, raise funds and mobilise voters. These programs have helped improve the representation of women: New Jersey now ranks 14th nationally (up from 43rd) for proportion of female state legislators.

“Today’s leaders — female and male — can use their signalling power to become advocates and role models”

Finally, today’s leaders — female and male — can use their signalling power to become advocates and role models.

Indira Gandhi was the first and the only female prime minister of India. Since then, we have had many influential and successful female politicians, including Sonia Gandhi, Jayalalithaa, Mamta Banerjee, Sushma Swaraj and many more. Role models like these could be particularly important for a new generation. A recent study found that the role model effect for female politicians like these is real — but only applies to young women. Other studies also show that new female candidates create more political discussion and engagement amongst young women but fail to influence older women.

Some men are also stepping up — and male politicians could use their power to do more to prioritise this issue. Rahul Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress party, recently promised that if elected, “50% of the space in the party will be for women. It cannot happen in one or two days. But it is my aim…. if 50% of the population is women, then they should get 50% of the space in the Congress.”

For India to be a true democracy, half its population cannot be left out of critical decisions about its future. The time is now: what are you doing to advance more Indian women in politics? — Shruti Kapoor

(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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