A meagre 6% of women constitute the elected political strength in Bihar. 61% of women in Bihar lack access to mass media, supposed to be the primary medium of the election campaign for the upcoming state elections. Bihar’s sex ratio (918 for each 1000 male according to the 2011 Census) is below the national average.
The same Bihar has the highest youth population in the country, yet lacks the parameters of employment and education infrastructure, the two primary needs of the youth. To address such issues in Bihar, and the nation as well, the Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced to encourage the women in the country to join politics.
In 1993, a constitutional amendment in India called for a random one-third of grassroots-level positions— village council leader, or pradhan— to be reserved for women throughout the nation. Bihar, one of the states that increased this quota to 50%, did so through the Bihar Panchayat Raj Ordinance. This initiative, at that time, was exclusive not only to India but globally as well. We will explore how this ordinance broke ground to initiate women into active politics.
In a survey, conducted with the aim to recognise the change brought in by this ordinance, it was revealed that it had a positive impact on women in general. Antenatal care, post-delivery care, immunisation of children showed incredible positive results after this ordinance came into action. “Majority of the antenatal care indicators have increased compared to the baseline status in 1998-99, except full ante-natal checkup,” the survey states.
Not only did the women turnout increase to an extent that it outnumbered the male turnout but also a record 34 women made it to the Bihar Legislative Assembly that has a strength of 243 in 2010, the highest in 48 years. The number of women qualifying for state government services has also increased over the years according to government numbers. These, along with female-centric policies and schemes by the state government, I feel made women the ‘silent force’ responsible for the re-election of Nitish Kumar to power. Women constitute 47% of the voters in Bihar and played a significant role in the election of the Janata Dal to power.
The increased representation of women in grassroot politics can be said to have led to an increase in political discussions among women, and made the female population, as a whole, more aware of the political scenario in their state.
Bihar registered more women voters than men, with 59.92% women, against 55.26% men, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. However, it is ironic that just 9% of the total candidates contesting from Bihar were women. In the end, only three women out of the total 40 MPs won the elections. A primary reason for this upset in logistics could be that political parties have a Mahila wing (women’s wing) but they are often denied a ticket in mainstream party politics.
Also, experts have pointed out that the migration of men to neighbouring states in search for work could be a reason for greater turnout for women. Besides, researchers warn there may have developed a system of proxy where women hold formal power but the actual authority is exerted by their male relation.
The unjust policies that continue today can be attributed largely a result of the under-representation of women in positions of decision-making, which essentially leads to the misrepresentation of their demands and needs for public policies.
When the first phase of the Coronavirus-related lockdown was imposed across the country, the sanitary pad manufacturing industry was shut down. It was later allowed to function only after a public outcry by activists and journalists on social media demanding that the product should be included in the list of essential products.
Fallacies like these in the decision-making process put under the spotlight the need for women in positions of power. Women-centric issues are easily sidelined as the people whom it affects often don’t have a say at the policy-making table. Right from the grassroot politics, to state legislative assemblies, and the central government, there is a need for women-centric issues to be heard and recognized. This will happen only when women become a stronger force in politics.
How then do we ensure that women not only become active participants in politics but also exert their political power to influence important decisions? Many NGOs and organisations have been working on a solution by actively making efforts to mobilize the women in the state to take up active participation in the election process.
Though there has been a positive increase in women’s turnout in the elections and the growth of the nascent female political sphere in the state is noteworthy, the overall picture, in terms of female representation in Bihar politics, is still dismal and has a long way to go to achieve gender equality.