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Special Article


Empowering Women

Ash Narain Roy

There is an old African proverb that says, “Until the lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.”

As is common knowledge, while the male lion’s mane incites our imagination, it is actually the lionesses that bring in food and ensure survival of the species. As Renana Jhavwala of SEWA and member of UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment aptly says, “Women's work is invisible … women are at the base of the economic pyramid. Women are stuck on a 'sticky floor' of low technology, low productivity, low skills, low earnings and low dignity.” Rural women in the Asia-Pacific region make critical contributions to household production and national food security, yet their contribution is hardly acknowledged.

The credit for the success of Brazil’s conditional cash transfer programme, Bolsa familia, goes to women. The programme rewards families for sending their children to school and taking them for regular health check- ups. This scheme has pulled millions out of poverty.   The state tends to believe women are more reliable than men. In Mexico, a similar programme, Oportunidades, is available exclusively to women.

There is strong empirical evidence to suggest that money in the hands of the mother increases expenditure on children. There is a strong positive correlation between women’s status and economic/social development. Policy makers across the world have placed great emphasis on gender equality. The experience suggests that economic development alone is not enough to bring about equality. What is needed is policy action. This is where the importance of women’s political empowerment comes.

Democracy in the 21st century is moving towards equity and inclusion. This is the underlying message of citizens’ movements across the world. And with increasing role of women at the policy level and in institutions of government, democracy can become ‘politics of difference’ and ‘politics of presence.’

Greater representation of women in Parliament, state assemblies and local government bodies, studies show, promotes gender equality and social equity. Decision-making processes have to be inclusive, equitable, participatory and responsive through strategic entry points for women in institutions of governance.

According to a report published jointly by the UNDP and the National Democratic Institute, although 40 to 50 percent of members of political parties globally are women, only about 10 percent hold positions of leadership. And with less than 20 percent of the world's parliamentary seats occupied by women it is clear that political parties need to do more   to support women's political empowerment. The report further says that if we want to promote democracy and empower women politically, we must engage, not bypass, political parties.

It is globally established that quotas empower women, making governance inclusive and accountable. No wonder, around 40 countries have introduced gender quota in election to national parliament, either by constitutional amendment or change in the electoral laws. In more than 50 countries major political parties have voluntarily set quota provisions in their own statutes.

Quotas are a fast track to equal representation for women. They are an efficient way of attaining real equality, that is, ‘equality of results.’ Studies have found that the cultural attitude that affected women’s rise in politics in the past is slowly changing. Women are now favoured for promoting inclusion and consensus building.

According to a poll, about two-third, (57 per cent) of people in Latin America found quota as beneficial. As many as 85 per cent of people thought women were better decision makers and 66 per cent said they were more honest.

Quota is a legitimate means of remedying women’s under-representation in institutions of governance. Increasing greater representation and participation of women through quota is necessary to address historically and culturally embedded forms of disadvantage.

India has exemplified a promising model in the field of women’s empowerment at the grassroots. Today nearly all states have raised the quota for women in panchayats and municipalities from one-third to 50 per cent.  The result is encouraging. Women sarpanches in India are breaking stereotypes and are giving priorities to issues like rainwater harvesting systems, waste water management, change in land use patterns, use of natural fertilisers for farming, setting up of small businesses and cottage in dustries, formation of self-help groups and use of solar energy. The research done by the Institute of Social Sciences suggests that elected women are giving priorities to establishing primary education and primary health centres as well.  Somehow men hardly considered these issues important.

Thanks to the quota system, the political empowerment of women in India through the panchayati raj institutions has begun to change the political landscape as also governance agenda. Though reservation for women in parliament is pending approval, India can boast that there are more elected women representatives in India in the local government institutions than in the rest of the world put together. India has about 3 million elected representatives of which more than a million are women. Prior to the 73rd Constitutional amendment, women constituted only 5 per cent of rural leadership across the country.

As per the 73rd Amendment, seats are also reserved for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. The quota system has thus opened the doors to revolutionary changes of a political, social and cultural nature. This silent revolution is without precedent and without parallel in the world. This is the kind of women’s political empowerment that has won India much kudos from the world. It reflects a deep sense of social justice and this social engineering has begun to change the grammar of Indian politics.

A few years ago an MIT economist Esther Duffo and D Bandhopadhyay   found after surveyors visited hundreds of villagers in West Bengal that the supply of drinking water was a priority of women voters and that an average women leader invested more in drinking water than a male leader did. They also found that women sarpanches were not acting merely as stooges for their husbands or fathers-in-law. Though women continued to face hurdles and face many challenges, they showed their growing capability to run panchayats better than men. Women also constructed and maintained wells better and took fewer bribes.

According to another study conducted by Devi Prasad and S Haranath on the participation of women in PRIs in Andhra Pradesh, reservation of seats has resulted in development of political awareness among women. It has created an urge among women to become a part of mainstream political, economic and social life. Despite many social and cultural limitations, women have proved better leaders than their male counterparts, the study observed.

A recent UNICEF report has revealed that around the world, greater participation of women in local politics has led to “a more equitable distribution of community resources with direct benefits for women and children, particularly girls.” The report has lessons for the entire world, particularly the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Why quota for women? Women suffer from multiple deprivations of class, caste and gender. Quota is an instrument to make governance more inclusive. The World Bank says empowerment is one of the key constituent elements for poverty reduction, and as a primary development assistance goal. The rationale for women’s empowerment is compelling:  it promotes growth, reduces poverty, and promotes better governance.

The UNICEF report further states that gender quotas have worked to the advantage of local communities. “Investment in drinking water facilities, for instance, was double in panchayats headed by women compared to those without quotas”. According to another study, roads were almost twice as likely to be in good conditions.” 

Women members also pay more attention to health care. A survey covering 100 villages in Rajasthan collected information on the immunization record of every child between the age of one and five living in a village reserved for a woman village council head. The impact of women leaders on school attendance is even more significant.  The UNICEF report says that “the presence of a woman head reduces the gender gap in school attendance by 13per cent points.”

The UNICEF report  is in line with the findings of a Gallup poll in Latin America some years ago which found that 62 per cent of people believed women would do better than men in fighting poverty, 72 per cent favoured women for improving education and 52per cent thought women would make better diplomats.

Gender equity is not a question of numbers but of democratic principle. And yet, higher presence in panchayat institutions has given them confidence to claim their rightful role. That is not to suggest, all is hunky dory for women.  In patriarchal societies like ours, it is an uphill struggle to be judged both a good woman and a good leader. Women face many hurdles. They have to navigate public prejudices.

However, levels of education have been shown to greatly improve the capacity of women panchayat members to deliver better and to participate effectively in panchayat activities. Research clearly shows a significant positive correlation between better education/ training and better performance. The rationale for empowering women is compelling: it promotes growth, reduces poverty and leads to better governance.

India’s concerns lie elsewhere. While the Indian economy has grown, its female labour force participation fell by 7 percentage points between 2004 and 2011 from 31 per cent to 24 per cent. In 2013 the International Labour Organisation ranked India 11th from the bottom in the world. Even within South Asia, India occupies sixth position among eight countries, only better than Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is ironical that while women are today more educated and are willing to work, the country’s traditional gender norms are major stumbling blocks.

The World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Report finds a positive correlation between gender equality and per capita GDP, the level of competitiveness and human development indicators. Unless the gender gaps in the labour force are reduced and women are empowered at all levels, India can’t fully harness its demographic dividend.

(The author is Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi, e-mail: ashnarainroy@gmail.com)