This Women’s Day, Enable Them to Get Fair Share of Electoral Power
In an extremely diverse country like India, inclusivity of all sections of society, big or small, is critically important. The foremost demand of inclusivity in our democracy certainly is to give equality to women – our largest minority.
When India chose to become a democratic republic, we started off by giving equal voting rights to women on day one – a fact which looks hugely significant when compared to the fact that US had taken 144 years and UK exactly 100! But women are way behind when it comes to active participation in the electoral process.
Today, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the chief ministers of two states in India are women. Just a few years ago, we had a female President and five women chief ministers who all were very efficient. But the empowerment at the top has not trickled down. There are obstacles that hinder the engagement of women in the election process.
The hindrances include traditional and cultural barriers and social norms that are compounded by gender stereotypes, illiteracy, lack of awareness, lack of motivation, safety and security issues including intimidation from males and inability to step out of their roles as mothers, wives and homemakers.
Registration of Women Voters
India suffers from one of the lowest sex ratios among South Asian countries. Provisional figures in the 2011 Census of India puts the sex ratio of the country at 940. Among the ten most populous countries of the world, only China is behind us with a sex ratio of 926.
Similarly, the female literacy rate is also low. It was 65.46 percent in 2011 as compared to a male literacy rate of 82.14 per cent. Keeping this socio-economic-political milieu in mind, several steps were taken by the Election Commission to ensure that women are not prevented from exercising their right to vote.
To ensure the equality of women in the democratic process, an analysis of the gender ratio of the electoral rolls has been done meticulously since 2006. A major concern was related to the publishing of photographs on the electoral rolls which is problematic due to our socio-cultural sensitivities. It is mandatory to give hard copies of these rolls to the recognised political parties.
However, the Election Commission decided to share the soft copy of the rolls without photographs of the voters. It was felt that a soft copy of women’s photos could be subjected to abuses like morphing. The printed copy with a small postage stamp size photo was considered good enough for identification.
Female Participation in the Voting Process
The next logical step after registration in the voter list is going out to vote on the day of polls. Here too women were lagging behind because of socio-cultural prejudices. The EC has been taking several steps to encourage and facilitate women’s participation on the polling day. For one, there are separate queues for men and women.
To make it convenient for women, in the Uttar Pradesh elections in 2012, for a single man allowed to cast vote, it was decided to allow two women in the queue to proceed. This worked wonders as their queues moved faster and the women were able to return quickly, which motivated others to go and vote. This has been made a nationwide practice.
There is invariably one female polling staff member to take care of the sensibilities of female voters, especially those veiled with burqa or ghunghat, who may have reservations with a male polling staff member applying indelible ink on their fingers or identifying their faces. Women police forces are also deployed with a view to encourage female voters.
The issue recently hit the headlines when a BJP leader demanded deployment of women police to identify the burqa-clad women in the last two phases of UP election. It created an unpleasant controversy with a communal twist. The fact is that identification of every voter is mandatory, including those wearing a burqa. The EC has a standard provision of at least one woman staff in the polling team to ensure that the rule is followed without violating cultural sensitivities.
An analysis of gender-disaggregated data in the electoral rolls indicated a considerable gender gap, much below the national population ratio. The survey highlighted areas where interventions were required. Concern for personal security, dependence on the approval of family elders, especially men, and lack of adequate toilet facilities were some of the factors that kept many women away from voting.
EC's voter education programme sought to address these concerns. Its brand ambassadors, celebrity folk singers like Sharda Sinha in Bihar and Malini Awasthi in UP, led millions of women to the polling booth, recording a phenomenal jump in female voters’ turnout. In fact, female voters at 54.85 percent outnumbered male voters at 50.77 percent – a clear lead of eight per hundred.
Women Voters Turn-Out
Persistent efforts of the Election Commission yielded remarkable achievements. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the women voter turnout went up from 55.82 percent to 65.63 percent – a jump of nearly 10 percentage points, as against 8 pp for men. Moreover, in sixteen out of thirty-five states, they outnumbered their male counterparts, despite their adverse gender ratio. This also meant shrinking of the gender voting gap to an all-time low of 1.46 percent.
The trend has continued unabated. In the 2017 Assembly Elections, in every state, women outvoted men. Punjab, with a very poor sex ratio of 895 females per 1,000 males, witnessed a women turnout of 78.14 percent compared to 76.9 percent by men. In Uttarakhand, it was 69.76 (F) for 63.23 (M), Goa 83.98 (F) for 78.48 (M) and UP (first five phases) 60.28 (F) against 58.68 (M).
Participation of Women as Candidates
While the registration of women has increased phenomenally, their representation in legislature is abysmally low.
Representation of women in the Lok Sabha is a mere 12.15 percent as there are only 66 women representatives. It is embarrassing when compared with conservative Muslim countries in South Asia like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh which have very high female representation.
The saving grace for India is the enactment of the seventy-third and seventy-fourth amendments to its Constitution which provided 33 percent reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions – PRIs. On 27 August 2009, the Union Cabinet approved an increase in reservation for women from 33 to 50 percent.
A number of states have also introduced 50 percent reservation for women in municipalities and corporations. Regarding state Assemblies and the Parliament, a Bill for women’s reservation is pending with the Parliament, which has been debated ad nauseum for the past several years, but is yet to be passed.
The reluctance of the male-dominated Indian political leadership to provide fair representation to women in the legislature is a matter of concern. Reservation apart, they are not willing to give more tickets to women. Hardly 10 percent of the candidates are women. The excuse offered is their poor "winnability".
Even this is not borne out by facts. Throughout electoral history, winnability of women has always been higher as clear from the graph.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a man of bold initiatives. Let's see if he would like to break this glass ceiling.
(The writer is a former Chief Election Commissioner and the author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder – the Making of the Great Indian Election’. He can be reached @DrSYQuraishi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)