This was published as "2014 elections: Parties that ignore women's rights aren't worth your vote" on February 13, 2014.
Exasperated with simplistic solutions for achieving gender inclusivity, feminists critique approaches to development and social change that just “add women and stir.” In India, we have had enough women in positions of power to know that their presence offers a powerful role model and an impressive point of departure, but that is all. In most cases, just having women in positions of power does not equal a transformed society. For that, women need to be active and represented at all levels and in all spheres of the political process. And even more important, “women’s issues” should be everybody’s issues—especially in an election year.
For those of us who talk about women’s participation and about gender sensitivity in policy-making, one challenge is that women are automatically associated with care-related or domestic concerns. Thus, those forming a Cabinet will appoint women to Women and Child Development, Health, even Education and Social Welfare, and maybe at a stretch to Information and Broadcasting, but rarely to Defence, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Home or even Industry. Gender stereotyping continues at this level. But even more lasting damage is done when those addressing women do not talk to them of these issues. A candidate campaigning door-to-door expects to find only women at home and to talk to them about gas cylinder prices and not peace talks with our neighbour. It is not as if all men hold strategic studies or MBA degrees or five years of corporate or army experience; it is an unfounded assumption about women’s interests and abilities that determines the agenda. Women internalise this and feel that without additional training, the portfolios of care-giving and domesticity are their natural domain.
The other challenge is that women in politics are not necessarily sensitized to think about gender issues. Political activity is structured around the way that most men live in patriarchal societies, with someone else taking care of their families and life-maintenance work. This option is usually not available to women and while balancing these responsibilities is a challenge in most careers, it is particularly so in politics. Women have to enter, survive and make their way up the ladder in this very inhospitable environment. Moreover, it is a system that does not reward specialists, male or female. Survival requires that women neither advocate nor antagonize, and being women’s rights advocates would marginalize them in those early stages. Political parties in India do not encourage issue expertise, and they do not encourage independent issue-based advocacy or coalition across party lines. Therefore, we can and do have women in legislatures who are not necessarily gender-sensitive and women in power for whom women’s rights are not necessarily a priority.
Women’s participation in politics and better representation at every level is intrinsically important. However, it must be accompanied by an integration of gender concerns in the thinking and rhetoric of the political class. This, we would look for in party manifestos but perhaps more meaningfully, in the track record and speeches of political candidates and leaders. Setting aside our habitual cynicism, were we to seriously evaluate political parties and candidates on their gender rights credentials, what would we want to see? For me, the two most important issues would be sexual and gender-based violence and women’s participation. I also consider women’s economic rights and livelihood issues important, and I would like to see political parties take cognizance of militarization as a problem but for today, these two issues are enough to serve as a gender sensitivity filter.
Today, in India, violence is the first issue that comes to people’s minds when “women” or “gender” are mentioned. Indeed, discussion on women’s status begins and ends at violence, although there is much more to women’s lives than this ever-present threat. Having said that, in 2014, a political party whose manifesto and main campaigners do not seriously talk about sexual and gender-based violence is probably not worth considering seriously.
First on my checklist would be to see if the party has nominated or given tickets to politicians charged or convicted for sexual or gender-based violence. It’s a very straightforward criterion. Second, I would reject a party that continues to back members who have expressed views that are sexist and misogynistic. Is sexism a part of their style—jokes about women peppering their speech, for instance? If members of a party have gone un-reprimanded for saying women invite rape, I would not want to vote for them.
Third, I would look at the track record of politicians from a given party on laws relating to gender-based violence. How have they voted? Did they even bother to attend Parliament on the days when recent laws were passed? If I heard that a particular party or politician had sought the opportunity to consult with women from their constituency or with women’s groups, I would be inclined to vote for them. It would signal to me that they were sincere in their commitment to ending violence.
Finally, what is the track record of a particular party in the states where it has been in power? One way to measure this is by looking at National Crime Records Bureau numbers. But even without the statistics, we can now search newspaper archives online or ask around for a pretty clear idea of how women in that state feel. For instance, when groups that support moral policing surface, how does the state respond? What is an administration’s response to a particular incident or piece of information on gender-based violence?
To me, enabling women’s participation is an important issue. Where has a particular party stood on the question of the Women’s Representation Bill? Most parties and politicians oppose the Bill for various reasons, and so that is in itself a quick filter. A second measure might be to see whether the Panchayat reservations for women have yielded a new cadre of young women leaders from the grassroots. If it has, the party is doing something right. If it hasn’t, then it is nominating ‘token’ women and it is not tapping into the talent that has now come into the public sphere. I would not vote for a party that is not eager to draw talented and experienced women to its fold and encourage them. Related to both of these, I would like to see the track record of various political parties with regard to appointments in states (and at the Centre) when they were in power. How many women did they appoint to various official positions and how many women served as Ministers in their Cabinets, at what ranks and holding which portfolios? Having a woman Chief Minister does not exempt a political party from this test.
Beyond this, given what we have learned recently about how many women remain unregistered as voters, for me, a party that goes out of its way to check the electoral rolls and facilitate registration for women voters would get bonus points. This, of course, cannot be an election season party, but perhaps right after elections, they could undertake such a drive. NGOs are doing this, but do our political parties care enough?
It is perfectly possible that not a single party will meet these criteria in 2014. This presents an opportunity to those who would work for change. Using our disappointment in 2014 as a baseline, feminists and others who care about inclusive democracy could strategize how to use the upcoming five years to bring about a change.
How will I vote if no party meets these criteria? I do not know; but vote, I will. Inadvertently then, this time I will give people a chance who have no commitment to gender equality or justice. That unpleasant prospect will motivate me (and you?) to work very hard in the five years to come. We must; who else will?
Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist and the founder of Prajnya. Gender-based violence and women's participation are central to both her work and Prajnya's.