Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Spotlight: Women Can Build A New Politics In New India

By Sumera Shahnaz | INNLIVE

Engaging in formal politics is basically about engaging in making a claim for power or for access to it. This power can, of course, be used in ways that are enabling to the groups that the elected politician represents. Given this, we could ask how far reservation of seats in legislative councils for women would enable them to gain the power to negotiate the issues and concerns that impact their lives and affirm the rights demanded by the women’s movement.
Reservation of seats for women in legislative councils does not necessarily mean that women’s voice and justice will get represented – that is, reservation does not necessarily lead to representation. After all, if it is just a question of women holding politically powerful posts. By that token, India has done rather well. Apart from the fact that a leader of one of the major political parties in the country is a woman, we have had a WOMAN leader of Opposition and a WOMAN Speaker of the Lower House in the last Parliament. 

In 2011, three women chief ministers got elected to power and to quote political commentator Neerja Chowdhury’s essay on Women in Politics in India: “Together these women ruled just under one-third of India… influencing the destinies of around 400 million Indians. They ruled over more people than the population of the United States of America, the third most populous country in the world”.

But do these elected women represent women? In our view there are difficulties here. Neerja Chowdhury in the same essay perspicaciously unpacks the paradox. First, most of these women entered politics because of the power of politically important men – as widows, daughters, followers. Their role was to continue the fiefdom of the men who preceded them, or of the families and parties their mentors represented. They were not people who represented women, or had any experience in working for women and neither had they committed themselves to women’s rights and concerns.

Second, women’s concerns that are addressed in election speeches and manifestos are usually related to their care giving responsibilities – reproductive rights, child care, proximate health services, access to water, and so on. Women ministers, more often than not, are given charge of the women and child portfolios or those of health, environment, and the like. These are areas of governance that are considered ‘soft’ and not of national importance, as say portfolios dealing with finance or external affairs. Women in formal politics, Chowdhury found, did not want to be stereotyped in a manner that marginalises or sidelines them – they want to be part of the mainstream. This also explains why elected women are reluctant to be identified solely as representing women.

Reservation of seats for women in local self government, or Panchayati Raj as it is known, has come to be regarded as a success in terms of changing the power relations between the genders. Several very sophisticated surveys have been undertaken to test this proposition. K. Deininger and colleagues in a 2012 paper entitled ‘Do Changes in Inheritance Legislation Improve Women’s Access to Physical and Human Capital? Evidence from India’s Hindu Succession Act’, concluded that political reservation for women in India has an empowerment effect in terms of lesser hours of housework for women. 

It also increases the extent to which women assert their reproductive choices and control their own resources. A significant increase in girls’ educational attainment was also found, indicating that women sarpanchs tended to spend more on education. However, a 2012 study by I. Rajaraman and M. Gupta, entitled ‘Public expenditure choices and gender quotas’, which focused on the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Odisha, rejected the proposition that women as heads make choices that benefit the needs of their own gender. They showed how it was local circumstances and not gender that had played a major role in governing decisions on public expenditure.

Other studies have suggested that women led panchayats did make more altruistic choices for the public good, but they all failed to show whether women leaders actually raised women’s issues. For example, there seems to be no evidence of an inverse relation between rising women’s leadership and declining incidents of violence against women. Also, it is not known how issues like caste and minority issues play out in these circumstances. 

Reservation in the educational and employment spheres certainly enhances women’s power and capacity to negotiate gender relations, but this is different from reservations in elected bodies like Parliament and state assemblies. Therefore, the question remains, how are we to ensure that the women who will enter Parliament and state assemblies, actually “represent” women – negotiate their rights, express their ideas and voice?

In our opinion, this can only happen with the help of both reservations and the mobilisation of women voters, so that they can bargain as a block with potential representatives. Such block voting is possible, especially for categories like woman workers. Today, domestic workers have in many parts of the country constituted unions, so they can provide a block vote. This is also possible in other occupations in which women are present in large numbers, like nursing, waste picking, beedi rolling, and the like. But it is only if elected women representing these blocks carry into the citadels of power the voices of the women who constitute these blocks, will true political representation come about.

When December 16, 2012, emerged as a defining moment in women’s history in India, sexual violence took centre stage and gave women a voice so powerful that every political actor and party had to take note of this concern. It led to changes in the law and arrangements to ensure the safety of women was put in place. In this way, the women’s movement has been able to successfully lobby on this issue, without the help of women in the parliament. 

But because of the success of that campaign women across parties unanimously supported the initiatives and actions to tackle violations of women’s bodies. What followed was that everywhere, in the courts, in the business houses in universities, there was a call to action on what was earlier seen as an issue that was only of sectoral interest. Now young women from all over India, including those from the Dalit and minority communities, are connecting with each other and setting an agenda for equality, safety and justice.

We recognise, however, that unlike other identities, women’s identity is difficult to translate into what is called a ‘vote bank’. But we believe that if the Indian women’s movement can forge a common platform on issues of economic policy, democratisation of trade agreements, party management, federalism, and related issues, they would be able to go beyond their immediate constituencies and make a bigger impact on the country. 

This, in turn, could allow them to gain representation in places of power and emerge as spokespersons for an alternate form of development, one that is more conserving of nature and its resources. They would, in the process, also bring a more collective approach to citizenship.

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