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What Statistics Say About Women Contesting Elections In India

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By Sumit Chaturvedi:

Since 2001, at least 14 political parties with a women-oriented political agenda have emerged across India, according to the analysis of an official list of political parties from April 2001 to January 2015. Five of these parties have contested either a general election or a state assembly election in the past 15 years, according to statistical reports of elections for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies.

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Despite a low success rate (with 100% deposit forfeited in all cases), most of these parties have survived, and the trend of registration of women’s issues-based parties has increased over the years, in a country where women comprise no more than 11.4% of the parliament.

Source: Election Commission of India
Source: Election Commission of India

As the graph above reveals, the number of such parties has increased from two in 2001 to 14 in 2015. Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh – a state with low levels of female development indices and empowerment – is seemingly a hub of such parties. India’s most-populous state accounts for nine parties with a women-oriented agenda.

With scant media coverage of these parties, it is difficult to ascertain what view of women’s rights they take. However, based on the names that they have been registered with, these parties seemingly represent different ideas. While some of them favour women empowerment, self-respect for women and women’s rights, there are also those which believe in a more universalist approach of constituting a women’s democratic front or organisation. Though, majority of them have the chief agenda of organising women under one front.

All India Mahila Dal, which was registered on January 4, 1998, falls out of the purview of this study since it remained discontinued since 2001. However, a look at the agenda of this party and that of United Women Front reveals that both had similar aims of becoming national-level women’s parties, and they were ready to accommodate men to achieve their ultimate objective of better representation for women’s interests.

Looking at the immediate aims of both the parties as reported, a broad observation can be made that descriptive representation remains their chief agenda whereby “political institutions should reflect the composition of civil society”.

In all, these parties are distributed across six states: West Bengal, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Maharashtra. These parties were registered in Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mumbai and Lucknow, amongst capital cities, and Unnao, Chittor and Dharwad, amongst other cities.

Jagdeep S. Chhokar from Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) suggests that since registered parties enjoy 100% tax exemption under section 13 A of the Income Tax Act, many are registered for tax-avoidance purposes, which might explain why between 75% and 80% of the registered parties do not contest elections.

“Tax exemption is a primary draw to register a political party,” said Chhokar.

Of those who contest, success is a distant country.

Of the women-oriented parties that have contested elections, one contested the general elections in 2004, three in 2009, and one in 2014. One party also contested the 2008 Delhi state assembly elections.

Source: Election Commission of India
Source: Election Commission of India

A few key observations from the table above:

1. None of the parties have been able to cross the 1% threshold of the vote share. All the deposits have been forfeited.

2. All the parties except one have finished below the 50 percentile amongst all the contesting parties.

3. The mean average percentage of the female candidates contesting from all the constituencies is 12.5% and the median average is 9.8%. All the candidates featured in the table above were women and thus contributed in increasing an otherwise quite low average of female candidates from these constituencies.

4. All the parties have fielded solitary candidates in all the constituencies. While all other parties have contested elections from the city where the parties are originally based, Mahila Adhikar Party, based in New Delhi, fielded its candidate from an off-base constituency, UP’s Amethi, an Indian National Congress stronghold.

The United Women Front (UWF), which planned to field candidates for all 72 seats in the Delhi Assembly elections 2008, eventually fielded only one. Except UWF, none of these parties contested any election again. Since Mahila Swabhiman Party (MSP) was formed in 2014 and contested the Lok Sabha election the same year, its continued participation will be clear only in the next election.

One women-oriented party’s lonely struggle.

Since UWF fielded six candidates in the 2009 general elections, it provides fodder for more expansive analysis.

In a sense, the party, launched in 2007 in a blaze of publicity, (as covered in The Hindu, WeNews.org and The Christian Science Monitor), follows India’s dynastic political proclivities. Its first president was Suman Krishan Kant, the wife of the former vice president, Krishan Kant. The party’s agenda – remedy the lack of representation of women in parliament.

“We are tired of waiting for the Women’s Reservation Bill,” said Suman Kant. This lack of representation, according to her, has been one of the reasons for the problems women face in society.

“Women have simply not been getting the kind of governance they deserve,” she said. “All this is precisely because we do not have enough women in decision-making and in political processes. A few women here and there cannot make much of a difference.”

Source: Statistical Report Lok Sabha Election 2009
Source: Statistical Report Lok Sabha Election 2009

The 2009 elections was the second such effort by the UWF and it led to a much-improved performance. From a single candidate in the Delhi assembly elections in 2008, the party fielded six candidates from five cities in five states, aiming for a national presence. That year, it supposedly had local organisations in 16 states, led by veteran activists.

For instance, Shanti Das, a union activist, headed the Orissa chapter in 2008. She later became the national president of the party in 2011, taking over from Kant, who retired due to health issues. The party’s participation in these elections was also special because it had fielded two male candidates, beside four female candidates.

“We are not against men,” Kant had said. “We need men to work with us and we need their support. However, it was predetermined that men will not be part of the national committee and will only be members of state chapters, while only a woman can head the party.”

Despite the party’s electoral failure, it is evident that the voters did not consider UWF an unviable party. Finishing in the top 50 percentile of the total number of parties was a considerable success for a fledgling party.

Delhi and Andhra Pradesh fielded two candidates each, the other two candidates came from Bihar and Haryana respectively, where they did garner higher vote shares (0.78% and 0.36%) than in the first two states. In Vaishali (Bihar) and Sonipat (Haryana), the party candidates were the only women contesting.

The party did not contest either the next Lok Sabha elections or the Delhi state assembly elections. However in an interview with Gulf News in 2010, Kant reflected on the loss in the 2009 elections. “It was our first election and we haven’t lost hope. It will take time to come to power but we are happy that at least people are beginning to recognise the Front,” she said.

“We have formed branches all over the country including Delhi, Haryana, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Punjab and the eastern states,” Kant added.

For women, every bit of electoral progress counts.

For women, India is an electorally dismal landscape.

Of 543 Lok Sabha seats, only 668 female candidates were fielded, which is 8.1% of all candidates. No more than 62 female candidates won, which means 9.3% of the women who contested were successful: 525 female candidates forfeited their deposits. The percentage of women in Parliament, as we said earlier, is now 11.4%, much below the international average of 22% and puts India at a lowly 111th rank among 145 nations of the world, as per statistics provided by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women.

The outlook for women is uniformly bleak across India’s political landscape. The Bhartiya Janata Party, which won 282 of 543 Lok Sabha seats, fielded only 38 women out of 428 candidates, or 8.9%. The Indian National Congress had 60 women of 464 candidates, or 12.9%. The candidates for the left parties, Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist), were 8.9% and 11.8% female, respectively.

Women made up no more than 5.4% and 11.1% of candidates at the other two national parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party and Nationalist Congress Party, respectively. National parties accounted for only 21.9% of total women contesting the polls. Ironically, a majority of these parties supported the Women’s Reservation Bill 2009 in Rajya Sabha, which guarantees a reservation of 33% seats in legislative bodies for women.

As Zoya Hasan, retired professor at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, suggested in the introduction to her edited volume, Party and Party Politics in India, political parties may have “played a critical role in the democratic process, especially in drawing historically-disadvantaged sections of society into the political system.”

Yet what Amrita Basu, the Dominic J. Paino 1955 Professor of Political Science and Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies at Amherst College, observed in her report: Women, Political Parties and Social Movements in South Asia in 2005 still holds true.

“There isn’t much to report on parties’ success in organising women,” wrote Basu, “Most political parties are male dominated and neglect women and women’s interests. Whereas women have played very visible and important roles at the higher echelons of power as heads of state, and at the grassroots level in social movements, they have been under-represented in political parties.”

Yet, the fact that 93.6% of female candidates were unable to save their deposit from being forfeited in the 2014 general elections suggests that neither political parties nor the electorate are prepared to seriously consider women as their representatives.

Yet, the rise, however small, of women-oriented parties is encouraging.

Equal representation, however, is no guarantee for better representation of female agendas in mainstream politics. As Basu observed, citing Shirin M. Rai, Professor of Politics and International Studies at University of Warwick, “Those women who have played leading roles in political parties have rarely addressed women’s interests and questions of gender inequality.”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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