Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The National Womanifesto 2014; Elected Women Representatives (EWRs); and the Effect of Indian Woman Voter in 2014

By Raakhee Suryaprakash

This post is the first in a series devoted to the ongoing Elections in India

Image from Pixabay
Popular media and advertisements may exhort the average Indian to make a sensible choice or at least go register your vote against all the candidates by pressing the “none of the above” button but its hard exercising this hard-won fundamental right when the choices are so poor and seemingly pointless. The Indian Womanifesto – The National Womanifesto 2014 – is a decent roadmap for a concerned citizen to assess electoral candidates’ commitment to empower women as they try to win one of the 543 seats in the Indian National Parliament. The Womanifesto is a 6-point plan that seeks to ensure the freedom and safety, equality and flourishing of India's women and girls. It asks of all candidates for the 2014 Lok Sabha to commit to the following:
(1) Educate for Equality: With the noble ambition to “implement comprehensive, well-funded and long-term public education programmes with full-scale media campaigns to end the culture of gender-based discrimination and violence. ...  Reaching men, women, boys and girls in both urban and rural areas.”
(2) Make laws count.
(3) Put women in power: Emphasizing the need to pass the Women's Reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha and ensure that women will be represented in all councils, committees and task forces related to policy and practice across the board. The Womanifesto also supports the adoption of a Code of Conduct to disqualify electoral candidates who have committed offences of gender-related violence and end misogynist comments and behaviour in the Lok Sabha. And in my opinion the first to be disqualified will the Samajwadi Party (SP) leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav and Abu Azmi for their statements wooing what The Hindu’s editorial calls “India’s pro-rapist lobby.”
(4) Police for the people: There is a critical need for this as a key reason for underreporting crimes against women is the insensitivity and crudeness of police personnel – both men and women – towards the victims and their family. The document asks to “establish and enforce a comprehensive response protocol for crimes against women, and publicise it”; “work with state governments to change service rules and ensure police and prosecutorial recruitment, promotion and penalties are made on attitudes and performances based on gender”; “[implement] police reforms and to ensure that police personnel who breach the new procedures are investigated and disciplined accordingly.”
The Indian Womanifesto also asks to establish rape crisis response teams, with rural and urban pilot projects and calls for zero tolerance of moral policing by State/non-State actors.
The talk show Satyameva Jayate (Truth Will Triumph) hosted by Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan calls for setting up of a comprehensive rape crisis centre in every district across India and I think both the centre and response teams suggested by the Womanifesto are essential to empower victims of sexual violence – man, woman, child or adult. 
(5) Swift, certain justice: calling for “strong action against racial discrimination and violence against women from the North-East”; “push to enact a special law to combat honour crimes” and most vitally in my opinion “speedy justice in long-pending cases as well as custodial rapes.”
(6) Economic flourishing: Ensuring “secure, dignified, remunerative employment for women”; Action plans to “secure equal pay for equal work in all sectors”; “creches and other critical support to MNREGA workers”; “action plans to accelerate quality education for girls”; and working towards women achieving “equal property rights in natal families and fair shares through marriage.”
Infrastructure development to promote health and wealth for all especially women is central to this final point on the Womanifesto – “Public toilets ... especially in the poorest areas”; “access to regular, safe public transport.”

A Conversation beyond Violence against Women
Since December 2012 when the Delhi gang rape woke Indians from our stupor, I have found that I have to agree with Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan of Prajnya that “all things gender equal violence in public discourse, and especially the media.”
Its worrying that unconsciously or consciously we’ve to prove we are qualified to be concerned about any aspect of national policy when men’s comments are solicited for a variety of issues whether they are interested or even aware or not. Thus we “deprive women of voice on these issues and all of us of the benefit of their insights.”

EWRs and the Effect of Indian Woman Voter in 2014
Article after article in the media taps into the phenomenon of more women voting in the 2014 Indian elections than men, considering the adverse sex-ratio that’s the bane of India this is a very positive trend. Women have outnumbered men in voting in as many as 16 of the 20 states that went to polls since 2010.  The gap in voting between men and women has been falling since 1962 and was lowest in 2009 polls. Political parties will have to reckon with women power as two states – Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – that could decide the fate of the next party in power at Centre had recorded higher women participation then men.
As mentioned before in my opinion 33% reservation for women in India’s grassroots governmental institutions is a significant victory in empowering women and bringing them into the political arena thus helping shape policy from the ground up. A few former bureaucrats have called these elected women representatives (EWRs) of the Pachayati Raj (village level councils) institutions “Rubber stamp female candidates” who are put in power by the men in their family to rubber stamp their power ambitions. Sadly this is not restricted to EWRs of grassroots organisations but also female MPs and MLAs. The infamous former railways minister who inspired Harvard to study his business model Lallo Prasad Yadav’s wife Rabri Devi in his home state of Bihar being a case in point. But in my opinion these women should not be dismissed so lightly. The truism “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” actually works some positive change in the case of some of these so-called rubber stamp EWRs. Slowly but surely these women become truly empowered and the taste for power actually helps them stand up against their male family members. And sometimes they rebel for the greater good and development not just for selfish motives. As Professor Jenik Radon, the founder and director of the Eesti and Eurasian Public Service Fellowship said “Women are generally more family oriented, and are more responsible. The more women we have represented the better we are.”
In this context we must note that Dimple Yadav the young wife of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and daughter-in-law of the “pro-rapist” SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has filed nomination papers! Considering the poor status of women in Uttar Pradesh in particular and poor performing states in general the rise of the “females of the families” is a trend to observe. And later on we also need to assess how these women perform while dealing with so-called women issues.

Some Stats
In 2007, only 8% of all seats in the national parliament were occupied by women. It is still a record of sorts that 59 women were elected into the 15th Lok Sabha in the 2009 Indian national general elections with, in all, 556 women contesting for a seat in the parliament. It’s to be hoped that 2014’s 16th Lok Sabha will see this record beaten.
As per nomination data not that many women are filing nominations and staying the course. Take for example the cases of two diverse states Tamil Nadu and Jammu & Kashmir that both have similar low percentages of women candidates contesting polls. According to EC data only 55 women contest the polls out of 845 candidates for Tamil Nadu’s 39 Lok Sabha seats (7% in 2014, still an increase from 2009’s 5.83% of 823 candidates). One candidate is also contesting belonging to the “Others” category. A path-breaking development all said and done. In Jammu & Kashmir only 2 out of 19 candidates are women contesting for a chance to win one of its 4 Lok Sabha seats (going to polls on April 24 & 30th – 10.53% is still better than TN’s percentage!).
Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have 120 Lok Sabha constituencies sending representatives to India’s 543-member lower house. These populous states of India’s “cow belt” and the Gangetic Plains consistently underperform in almost all social indicators in addition to having a poor outlook for women of the state. It seems that the day of reckoning has come for the politicians of these states at the hands of their women. About 60.5% of women came out to vote in the 2012 state assembly elections in UP, which has 80 Lok Sabha seats, as compared to 58% men. In Bihar, which has 40 Lok Sabha constituencies, 54.5% women voted as compared to 51% men in the 2010 state assembly polls. The negative sex ratio is almost reversed but it’s to be seen who these women will choose in the national elections!