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Women want to have a say in world's biggest democracy
The world's biggest exercise in democracy – The Indian election has begun, with millions in the country's remote north-east going to the polls.
Over the coming weeks more than half a billion people are expected to visit 930,000 polling stations, all set up within two miles of their homes. Recent opinion surveys predict a big win though not an absolute majority in the 545-seat lower house of the national assembly, for the Hindu nationalist opposition – the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) – whose prime ministerial candidate is the controversial Narendra Modi.
The BJP, has promised to relaunch the faltering Indian economy. But with more and more women voting in Indian elections, the message is clear: women want a say in politics, yet they remain under-represented in public life.
According to the parliament of India female voter turnout increased from 38.8% in the 1950s to almost 60% in the 1990s, while the increase in the male turnout during the same period was only 4%.In a key paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly this year, researchers Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi point to "a steady and sharp decline in the gender bias in voting over time". The gender ratio of voters – the number of female voters to every 1,000 male voters – "increased very impressively from 715 in the 1960s to 883 in the 2000s". One of their more startling findings was that this held true across all Indian states, including those considered to be lagging socially or economically.
What are Indian women voting for, when they come out in such numbers? Not, sadly, for more women in parliament. Women constitute only 11% of both Indian houses of parliament, which is a small rise from 10% in the previously elected house. While female candidates are, according to data provided by PRS legislative research, more successful than men at winning elections (10% of all the women who stand for elections win their seats, while it's only 6% for male candidates), political parties are reluctant to field women in the elections. India's chiefly male political parties have also consistently opposed and blocked the passage of the women's reservation bill, which would have ensured that all parties had to keep 33% of seats for women. Opponents of women's reservation argue that female politicians can be just as conservative as their male counterparts, and that their mere presence in the houses of parliament might not bring about any kind of real change for women.
Several years ago, the Poverty Action Lab conducted a fascinating study on women and power. Its research analysed the impact of reservations for women at the village council level, and concluded that just the presence and visibility of female leaders had a significant impact on villages across many regions of India. Villages where women had a presence on local councils "clearly showed that men and women have different preferences over public goods". To put it bluntly, women invested more in infrastructure that had a direct impact on improving the lot of the average woman, whether their priorities were for better water supplies or more investment in education. The visibility of women in leadership roles also appears to have an impact in encouraging girls and women to continue with their education and to consider future career options differently.
When we see the steady swell in women coming out to vote, the message is clear: women want to have a say in public life, even if the male Indian politician isn't willing to listen just yet.
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