Women in Contemporary Democracy: Is Politics Gender Neutral?

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Is the society really democratic for women? Have women been excluded from formal politics? It raises a number of specific questions about how to reform democratic institutions since these institutions are not gender-equitable. Even in countries where free and fair elections have been held, democratisation is very much an electoral issue; political parties are elitist and even criminalised and lack internal democracy; institutions for popular participation are weakly embedded in society; political corruption is rife; civic rights are not protected; and parties lack strongly articulated social programmes. Women’s persistent exclusion and marginalisation from political office is a serious flaw. Our Associate Editor, Navodita, deals with Latin American (Brazil and Chile) and African (Uganda and ) case studies to the role of women in democratic politics. She wonders how we fare, on this front, in India. Here’s an interesting gander narrative, as Special Feature on International Women’s Day (IWD), exclusively in Different Truths. 

It’s been a long battle with the current gendered mind-set and the society – women have to go a long way in proving their mettle to the world – why prove at all, I say? There are fettered instances of female foeticide, female infanticide, honour killings, dowry deaths and the like. How developed are we in our view towards the women around us – do we get up to give an old lady a seat in the bus or the metro, do we offer to help our old mother at times when she is tired of taking care of the house, do we raise our eyebrows when we see a woman riding a motor-cycle, do we show sensitivity towards a female boss or just twitch at her name calling her names because she is upright and strict? Answers to a lot such questions are mired in mundane misgivings about what is an ‘appropriate’ behaviour of women in society? It seems society still wants to control the way women around us behave in their respective roles as daughters, mothers, bosses, wives and employees.

Most importantly, how have women grown in a democratic society? Is the society really democratic for women? Have women been excluded from formal politics? It raises a number of specific questions about how to reform democratic institutions since these institutions are not gender-equitable. Even in countries where free and fair elections have been held, democratisation is very much an electoral issue; political parties are elitist and even criminalised and lack internal democracy; institutions for popular participation are weakly embedded in society; political corruption is rife; civic rights are not protected, and parties lack strongly articulated social programmes.

Women’s persistent exclusion and marginalisation from political office is a serious flaw. Women’s limited participation in formal political institutions raises questions about how to reform such institutions. There has been a talk of women’s reservation in the parliament. Other than India, one institutional mechanism that has been made use of in some countries is the adoption of quotas for women in local and national elections – raising many daunting questions about representation and . One question that is frequently posed is whether women’s enhanced presence in the political arena can effectively promote crucial and gender-specific rights, such as reproductive rights, freedom from domestic violence, or public support for childcare and elderly care. In other words, under what conditions can women’s increased numerical representation – feminine presence – influence policy in a feminist direction?

Feminism had an undeniable impact on the political of transition in Latin America, thanks to the visible role that the national women’s played in the opposition to authoritarian regimes. Women’s issues appeared in a variety of party platforms. Women were chosen as candidates by political parties in the founding elections, and policies were occasionally adopted that it was felt would appeal to women voters. Brazil and Chile, the former known for its strong women’s and the latter for the strength of its party system, share elite-controlled negotiations. However, even in Brazil, several feminist groups were split over party rivalries, while others were dissolved. By the end of 1981, many women activists, including many independent feminists, had left militancy to engage solely in party militancy. In Chile, by the mid-80s, a large number of Chilean feminists, mostly middle-class and professional women, moved into the political parties of the left, while others took up official positions in the government. A handful of women, who do participate in institutionalised politics, family connections have tended to play an important role. Thus the picture is dismal – it is quite clear that despite the efforts of middle-class elite women to infiltrate the male spaces of party politics, women’s participation in democratic processes has remained limited, reflecting among other things women’s lack of electoral appeal. Nevertheless, some women agendas have found space and inroads, especially in the new, left-leaning political parties.

In contrast to Latin American democracies, Uganda and South Africa are two countries where there is decent women’s numerical representation in legislatures like in Scandinavian countries. Women constitute nearly 19% of the National in Uganda, and 27% in South Africa. Women’s high level of participation and representation in national legislatures owes a great deal to the affirmative policies and quota systems adopted by the leading political parties upon coming to power in their countries. In Uganda, since 1998, there has also been a new system of reservation for women at the District Level Local Councils whereby 30 % more seats have been added for women. In addition to women’s representation in the civil services, the president has made a point of putting women in politically sensitive, high-profile positions. In South Africa, the mechanism for institutionalising a presence of women in formal politics is through party list version of proportional representation. By focusing the vote on the party (rather than the individual candidate) thereby depersonalising it, the system can act as a countervailing force where conservative electorates are reluctant to vote for candidates based on their gender, race or ethnic identity. The African National Congress (ANC) has used this technique a lot, which has encouraged women participation and election in parliament. However, this seems to be limiting the scope for accountability of women candidates to voters and tilts more toward party leadership. A key question then is- should the woman representative be acting for women as a social group, or should she be representing a much wider constituency?

What is strikingly similar in Latin American and African case studies is the areas where gender ministries and women parliamentarians have been making progress: constitution writing, legal rights such as reproductive rights, violence against women, and enhancing women’s awareness of their existing rights through civic education – all of which address aspects of women’s oppression. The question is – where do we stand in this respect in India?

In India, have the movements led by All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) for basic legal and social rights for women fizzled out? Have such organisations been relegated to merely holding placards and taking out marches protesting a rape or an acid attack or an honour killing? Why are such movements playing a negative and a passive role rather than a positive, assertive and a proactive role in taking women’s movements forward? While our Latin American and African counterparts have surged ahead in making women’s voices heard, are Indian bodies lagging far behind?

©Navodita Pande

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Navodita Pande

Navodita Pande

Navodita Pande has been practicing yoga since she was 9 years old in Iyengar Yoga. In April 1995, she performed at the International Yoga Seminar. In January 2003, Navodita taught at Hare Rama Hare Krishna Mandir in New York. Navodita had a Yoga show on NDTV 24x7 and was also the official yoga trainer for Miss Delhi contestants in 2007. She currently teaches Yoga and Reiki to
people in Kanpur.
Navodita Pande
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