Chavvi Rajawat is in her late 30s. She holds an MBA, and has worked for years in multinational corporates like Airtel and the Times of India. But in 2010, she decided to give up city life to move back to her home village of Soda, in the state of Rajasthan.
Her return had a purpose. Soda is required by national law to have a woman as council leader, or sarpanch, and the villagers wanted Rajawat to stand for election.
Rajawat is now India’s youngest sarpanch. Under her leadership, the village council has built new roads and toilets, and brought water, power and a bank to its 7,000 residents.
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But the situation in Soda is not unique. Since a constitutional change in 1993, a third of all representatives in every Indian village council must be women. One in three villages, randomly selected by the government, must have a woman sarpanch.
The years since that gender quota have provided researchers with an ideal real-world example of what changes when women suddenly gain power.
Water or roads
Initially, many thought the new women leaders would struggle to command authority or bring much change. The fact that they were mandated from above “led to some resentment and backlash,” said Lakshmi Iyer, economics professor at the University of Notre Dame.
In 2004, economists from MIT ran a detailed survey of villages in West Bengal and Rajasthan. They analysed what village councils were spending money on, and what ordinary men and women complained most about in those areas.
In both places, women were most troubled by poor water provision. Women and girls collect household water, and were hindered by long distances and broken taps. Men complained more about roads and schools.
“Women and men have different interests, and they were not being represented before”
And villages led by female sarpanches did in fact spend much more money on water supply, and less on the issues that men prioritised. “That established that it does matter whether you elect a woman or a man: women and men have different interests, and they were not being represented before,” said Iyer. The results also showed that, contrary to many expectations, women leaders were not just tokens or puppets of their husbands.
Kamal Shekhawat, a female superintendent in Jaipur, said she has also seen female sarpanches invest more in other issues that affect women: “liquor shop problems, domestic violence, dowry problems, and drugs.”
Reporting of sex crimes
Iyer and her team of researchers were inspired to investigate other changes that the influx of local female power may have brought, this time at a nationwide level.
They compared rates of crimes against women in every state, before and after the imposition of the gender quotas in the 1990s. But, confounding expectations, they found around a 25% increase in total crimes against women, an 11% increase in rapes and a 12% increase in the kidnapping of girls.
One possibility was that the quota had generated a backlash against women. Another was that the women leaders’ inexperience had caused a general breakdown in law and order. But data showed that other crimes – like burglaries and murders – had not increased.
“Lots of Indian society is very patriarchal”
In fact, more research revealed that the numbers did not mean an increase in actual crimes, but an increase in reporting of it to the police, a critical first step in the pursuit of justice.
Women usually face huge barriers for reporting crimes like rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence, Iyer said, including the social cost of shame and the psychological costs of reliving the crime. The fact that India’s police force is more than 90% male reinforces these challenges.
“Lots of Indian society is very patriarchal. If you say that you got raped, usually the first question is what were you doing that got you raped. You’re told you must have been in wrong place at the wrong time, or wearing the wrong clothes,” Iyer said.
Surveys showed that women living in villages with a female sarpanch were more likely to say they would go to the police to report a crime than those living with a male head. There was no difference for men.
When women did go to the police, they were also treated better and taken more seriously in the villages with a female sarpanch. And national levels of police arrests for crimes against women increased noticeably after the quota came in, suggesting that reporting had led to action.
“They feel that they will be listened to more with a woman head”
“There’s some kind of an emboldenment effect — they feel that they will be listened to more with a woman head, and that if the policeman doesn’t listen, they have somebody to back them up,” said Iyer.
Shakhawat, one of the rare female police officers, suggested this may just be a part of the broader “hidden and silent changes in the society on women’s empowerment” brought by the quota.
Lessons beyond the local
While these studies are a striking indication of what can happen when women rule, the results cannot be extrapolated too generally. Places in India with a female state legislator, rather than a female village head, did not see similar effects on increased reporting of crime; the on-the-spot presence and support of a local leader was critical.
More women at national or regional level could, however, lead to other changes, like programs to recruit more women to the police or to encourage them to be more sympathetic to female victims, Iyer suggested. In Jaipur, a city in Rajasthan, Shakhawat has herself been instrumental to the establishment of a new squad of 52 female police officers who patrol the city’s streets in pairs by moped.
And pockets of evidence from other countries show that even beyond local decisions about water or roads, the gender of leaders can have a big impact on spending prioritisation. In Argentina, Colombia and Costa Rica, female legislators have been shown to place a higher priority than men on issues that matter for families, children and women.
In Brazil, research has shown that women mayors are significantly less likely to be corrupt, attract more capital investment and invest more in public health. Despite this, women mayors there are still less likely to be re-elected than men.
More and more evidence is demonstrating the concrete impact women have when they rule. The next challenge is to find out what works — beyond quotas — to enable more women to get into positions of power in the first place.
(Picture credit: Flickr/UN Women)