Women’s Representation in India’s State Legislative Assemblies
By: Pankhuri Bhatt* |
Women have always been a contentious component of humanity's history. From absent figures to the triumphs of the suffrage movement, they have moved along with the pro-democracy movement worldwide, demanding greater access and participation in society's social, political, and economic dynamics. With time, they have come to symbolise a crucial indicator of a just democracy in a society. A just democratic society represents a well-ordered society, where the political, social, and economic system is based on the tenets of equality, justice, and accountability towards people. Women constitute half of the world's population, hence the value of equality between men and women is central to the discourse on democratic governance.
In recent times, increasing numbers of women have entered representative politics. Yet their presence is far from what should translate as equal representation. Worldwide, women serve as heads of State or Government in only 22 countries and around 119 countries never had a women political leader (UN women calculations). Further in just 10 countries, a woman is the head of State and only 13 countries have a woman as head of Government (UN women calculations). In India, women constitute around 14 percent of the member of parliament, which is a historic high but still a far cry from an equitable representation (New Lok Sabha has the highest number of women, the Hindu, 2019). If we further filter it down to the state level, representation of women continues to remain dismal, with only 9 percent women MLAs and MPs across the country (Association of Democratic Reforms, 2019).
Women and men coexist together with their respective social preferences. They share some shared preferences like peace or pollution-free cities, while other preferences are more analogous to their gender. For instance, abortion rights for women. The paucity of women in legislature undermines the legitimacy of the democratic political system. Their paucity reflects an inadequate allocation of their social preferences because there are not enough members of their gender to represent their preferences in the political process.
Analysing the Representation of Women in State Assemblies in India
A woman’s participation in politics is a reinforcing factor in creating a level playing field and an emblem of their empowerment. Figure 1 presents the proportion of women MLAs across states over the last three decades in India, and the figure shows that the women’s representation in India’s state assemblies has consistently remained below 10 per cent of the total strength. However, there has been slight growth in their strength from 1990 to 2020.
Source: Election Commission of India
Winnability of Women Candidates
The low representation of women MLAs could be due to a lower winning chance of a women contestant than a male contestant or due to a lower number of women being fielded by the political parties in India. The winnability of woman candidates is looked at to ascertain if the political parties shy away from giving tickets to women candidates because their chances of winning an election are lower than that of a male candidate.
Winnability of female candidates is defined as "total elected female MLAs / total contested female candidates", and the same is compared with the winnability of male candidates as “total elected male MLAs / total contested male candidates”.
Table 1 summarises the winnability of male and female candidates over 91 state assembly elections in the last three decades.
The data suggest that across elections, the winnability of female candidates is at ~ 13 per cent as opposed to 10 per cent of male candidates. The winnability of female candidates is higher than the male candidates, which makes it even more intriguing as it proves that the low representation of women in state assemblies is not due to their winnability but because of the low number of candidates competing. The political parties are not providing enough tickets to the women candidates, hence reducing their representation.
Significance of Human Development Indicators (HDI) of a State on Women Participation in Elections
There is an argument that improving Human Development Indicators (HDI) would lead to increased participation of women in the elections. To ascertain this, a comparison of HDI (Census 2011) and electoral data (elections from 2011-20) is undertaken. For each HDI, states are grouped into four categories based on their performance in that HDI and the participation of male and female candidates are summed across states in each category.
Tables 2, 3, 4, and 5 present the participation of women candidates across states grouped into categories based on human development indicators (HDI): Sex ratio, literacy rate, female to male workforce ratio, and female marriage age, respectively. The data suggests that states with better human development indicators do not have significantly higher participation of women candidates. This indicates that a natural increase in women's participation with improving HDI is ruled out in the near future.
Why are Not Enough Women Contesting Elections: Lack of Political Support
Women's participation in India has gradually increased since independence, but representation in legislative houses remains abysmally low. Their representation peaked in the 16th Lok Sabha, elected in 2014 when 11.5 per cent of seats were won by female candidates and 7.6 per cent and in the 2019 general elections, women registered a record high of 14.4 per cent (See here). These slow increments are below the world average of 20 per cent. Similarly, the analysis shows that representation of women in most state legislatures remains below the world mark, indicating a phenomenon of pan India gender exclusion in electoral politics.
In India and elsewhere, it has been suggested that women’s participation in politics is generally lower than that of men because of their socio-economic circumstances. They are generally behind men in key human development indicators like literacy, life expectancy, employment, asset ownership, etc. However, the analysis shows that these do not have any significant impact on their electoral participation. This fact is further corroborated by the visible upsurge in women as voters in elections, achieving near parity with male voters (See here). This suggests that women have an active political agency to participate in the electoral process.
Becoming a political party candidate is critical to pursue a political career successfully. Winning a party nomination involves a certain litmus test that the political party in question generally controls. In this way, they have an indirect effect as a party gatekeeper on how many women get elected. However inherent gender bias and patriarchal mindset of political parties and the society in general discourages women from occupying leadership positions (See here).
Enforcement Measure: Political Reservations for Women
The proportion of women candidates in state assemblies has only increased from 5 per cent to 10 per cent in three decades even after significant improvements in human development indicators. At this rate, it would take a long time for equitable participation of women in India’s legislative bodies. This makes a case for some enforcement measures to provide a fillip to women's participation, like reservations for women in state assemblies.
Reservations would help improve the proportion of women contesting elections in the long run, despite facing initial backlash in the male-dominated profession. In 1974, a committee on the Status of Women published a report titled Towards equality that proposed that each political party set a quota for women candidates as a remedial measure (Ramaswamy S, 2015). As a transitional measure, it recommended a Constitutional amendment for reserving seats for women in panchayats, and that was done by the 73rd and 74th amendments in 1992. At the national level, the Women Reservation Bill was introduced by the 108th Constitutional Amendment Bill 2008. The bill seeks to reserve one–third of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies. However, there has been no consensus amongst political parties over the last 25 years to let this bill pass and it continues to collect the dust of delays.
Globally, many parties have achieved adequate representation of women by implementing quota system within their political parties, so until there is a consensus achieve for the Women Reservations Bill, political parties must try to implement a quota system within their parties to field women on at least a fixed percentage of seats. For instance, political parties in South Africa have a voluntary quota system within their parties, and women hold 47 per cent of seats in the national assembly (See here).
Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to both men and women to participate in electoral competitions. However, the existing barriers and male domination in political institutions restrict women from exercising their electoral rights and fair participation in the electoral process. Moreover, due to the lack of quality representation of women in key decision-making positions, women's social preferences are not reflected and addressed in public policies. The inadequate presence of women in critical policy decisions, especially concerning their gender, undermines the legitimacy of a political system in citizen's eyes. Hence, for a proper representation of women in politics, either an institutional measure in the form of gender quota or political reservation as a rule of law is the need of the hour to ensure the true spirit of democracy.
* The author is a student at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, O.P Jindal Global University.