Despite the fact that women account for half of the country’s population, their representation in the public arena is limited due to the country’s socio-cultural circumstances and patriarchal structure. India is no exception as just like many other countries of the world, women are underrepresented at all levels of decision-making.
As the data suggests, the gender gap in politics is quite skewed in the country, with India ranking 148 among all countries of the world in terms of representation of women in government and parliament (Singh 2021).
To bridge the gender gap in representation, the 73rd Amendment to the constitution paved a way for women into politics by reserving 33% positions at all levels of the Panchayat —- village, block, and district levels in every state of the country. In addition to this, 21 states like Odisha, Bihar, and Chhattisgarh have made 50% reservations in the Panchayati Raj Institutions for women (Banoth,Hari 2020). According to 2020 data, there were 1.3 million women involved in panchayat making up 44.2% of the total representatives. States like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh with better status for women, higher literacy, and high labor force participation rates benefitted from the measure. However, in states who perform low in these markers, particularly northern states like UP, the results further exasperated the gender issues (Pai 1998). Reservation has unquestionably functioned as a catalyst for change in women’s status, but one unforeseen consequence of this strategy is that women are now utilized as “proxies” by male family members. The women stand in the elections but are used as dummy representatives, whereas the actual power is exercised by the male members of their families (Chaudhuri, Sud 2015).
To some extent, the issue can be linked to the Theory of Public Choice. It sheds direct light on the politician’s primary aims, which are, in this case, rather obliquely, gaining votes and power. There is also play of the rationale ignorance of the voters pointing to their concerns regarding their own primary interest which is benefit maximization. Little attention is paid to the fact that the actual work is not being done by the pradhani herself. Therefore, the only criteria are to vote for women representatives from powerful families.
Proxy of women runs counter to the reservation policy’s purpose, resulting in more discrimination and the exclusion of women from decision-making and public affairs. As a result, while the policy may appear to be appropriate on paper, it hasn’t resulted in much change in practice. As one of the papers rightly summarizes, “the presence of women is not necessarily synonymous with their participation, there is a difference between formal power and effective power”. The women hold the formal power but cannot exercise it. The men indirectly retain their powers and handle the work leading to the intensification of the problem of gender disparity (Banoth 2020).
Men’s political dominance is frequently attributed to women’s lack of confidence, requisite skills, and networks, which pushes them to the margins. Women already have limited decision-making power at home, so they are assumed incompetent to make community decisions (Singh 2021). Because the political system is heavily dominated by men, even when they are active in their positions, their decisions are frequently questioned and not supported by the party’s male members. Women pradhans frequently face the problem of being perceived as dismal. Other reasons for their inability to exercise power include illiteracy, the dual burden of household responsibilities, and a lack of community support, resulting in their ousting by menfolk (Dak,Purohit 2008).
As opposed to patriarchal beliefs that women are not made for leadership roles, studies in India have shown that women in positions of power improve decision-making. Several studies have found that in villages where women hold active sarpanch positions, women’s needs are better met along with work in the key areas like the construction of toilets, drinking water projects, the appointment of teachers, and shutting down of liquor shops (Pai 1998).
To summarise, mandating representation is insufficient to empower women politically. As Saskia Brechenmacher writes, “ building truly gender-equal democracies requires more than just adding women to the mix”. Instead of making amendments theoretically, the focus should be on the ground level, analyzing how the policy is being actually implemented. To ease the process of involving more women in the political leadership role, it is critical to train women for official responsibilities and public office. To avoid being overthrown by their male relatives, a political culture must be formed that encourages women to be capable of governing. Both men and women need a more liberal understanding of the socio-political structure, so as to create a collective understanding and support (PRIA 1999).
- Pai, S. (1998). COMMENTARY-Pradhanis in New Panchayats Field Notes from Meerut Districts. Vol 33 (Issue No.18). Retrieved from: https://www.epw.in/journal/1998/18/uncategorised/commentary-pradhanis-new-panchayats-field-notes-meerut-district.html
- Banoth, H.C.P (2020). Women as Proxies in Grampanchayat. Did Affirmative action in Local bodies empower Women in rural India?. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/343381742_Women_as_Proxies_in_GrampanchayatDid_Affirmative_action_in_Local_bodies_empower_Women_in_rural_India
- Dak, T.M, Purohit, B.R. (2008). Empowerment of Women Through Participation in Panchayati Raj Institutions: ”Some Structural Impediments and Training Strategy”. Government of India, Planning Commission. Retrieved from: https://niti.gov.in/planningcommission.gov.in/docs/reports/sereport/ser/ser_priwmn.pdf
- Women’s Leadership In Panchayati Raj Institutions. (1999). PRIA. Retrieved from: https://pria.org/knowledge_resource/1533206139_Women%E2%80%99s%20Leadership%20in%20Panchayati%20Raj%20Institutions.pdf
- Mayal, S. (n.d). Are Reservations Enough To Empower Women in Local Governance?. Retrieved from: http://www.cmgga.in/uploads/3%20-%20Shailiza%20Mayal%20paper.pdf’
- Bavisker, B.S. (2003). A DECADE OF WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT THROUGH LOCAL GOVERNMENT IN INDIA. Institute of Social Sciences. Retrieved from: http://www.sapcanada.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/SAP-WE-Workshop-Baviskar.pdf
- Brechenmacher, S. (n.d). On Women’s Political Empowerment. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved from: https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/09/09/on-women-s-political-empowerment-pub-82531
- Chaudhuri, U. Sud, M (2015). Women as Proxies in Politics: Decision Making and Service Delivery in Panchayati Raj. The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. Retrieved from: https://www.thehinducentre.com/the-arena/current-issues/article7761306.ece
- Singj, A. (2020). Examining Women’s Role in Panchayati Raj. The Daily Guardian. Retrieved from: https://thedailyguardian.com/examining-womens-role-in-panchayati-raj/
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.