Ensuring increased political representation of women can improve equity and take us a step closer towards a more inclusive society and polity

A few weeks ago, I visited Lakhimpur Kheri, one of the largest districts in Uttar Pradesh. I met Lakshmi Devi, the Gram Pradhan, at the Mukhlishpur panchayat; she was overlooking the proceedings of the Village Health Nutrition Day (VHND).

VHND is an initiative under the National Health Mission, which is organised once a month in every panchayat, and provides basic maternal, child health and nutrition services. The initiatives are sparsely attended — many pregnant women choose to not avail of these services owing to a general lack of awareness and negligence towards their health. When Lakshmi Devi found this out, she went from door to door, convincing and encouraging women to come for check-ups. Many have benefited from this.

The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian Constitution provide the legal basis for direct democracy at the local level in rural and urban areas, stressing on the need to bring marginalised populations into the electoral process by reserving seats for women and disadvantaged groups. It was envisaged that this mandate would reflect the voices of women and the challenges that confront them. Ground realities, however, remain different. Most elected women gram pradhans are being represented by male members of their families, establishing that while policies may exist in principle, there is a need to translate them into action on the field. Though representation is adequate (as per the provision that requires reserving one-third of the seats), women’s actual participation has been less than that. Deeply entrenched sociocultural norms, restricted engagements in public affairs, class and caste restrictions have fed into the existing patriarchal practices, relegating women to the domestic spaces. Political engagements continue to have men at the helm even today.

Women across the world are bearing the burden of this challenge. A study, titled ‘Women’s leadership and policy decisions: evidence from a nationwide randomised experiment in India (2001)’, has concluded that a policymakers’ gender does influence policy decisions, and that increasing participation of women through political reservation can influence policymaking.

Ensuring increased political representation of women can improve equity and take us a step closer towards a more inclusive society and polity. Education and health, two of the most fundamental tenets of sustainable growth, will be prioritised, strengthening families, communities, and entire nations because of the ripple effect.

We have to reach the last mile to be able to encourage more women to contest elections, and explain to them the significance of their participation. Civil society organisations will have to raise awareness on governance issues and electoral processes among more women, motivate them to form their own networks and build solidarity. Discussions at different forums must be organised on schemes which are designed to have women as primary beneficiaries like the Janani Suraksha Yojana (cash incentives to promote institutional deliveries), LaQshya (aimed at improving quality maternity care), Pradhan Mantri Surakshit Matritya Abhiyan (reduce maternal and child mortality by providing universal and free quality antenatal care to pregnant women). Access to services, quality of care and accountability mechanisms will have to be strengthened at village, block and district levels across states. The paramount role that elected women representatives as gram pradhans can play to ensure this cannot be undermined.

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