Women comprise half of Indian voters, but remain marginalized despite formidable women leaders

Published: April 11, 2014

In this April 4, 2014 photo, an Indian woman farmer works to separate the peas from chaff at Bhaitora village, 65 kilometers (40 miles) east of Allahabad, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, India. AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh

NIRMALA GEORGE
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

SARAI, India — Trudging home after a long day harvesting wheat, Veena Devi has little time for the political workers swarming her northern Indian village seeking votes for their candidates.

“They come to us each time promising piped water, public toilets and factory jobs. But these political leaders will disappear after they win,” said the grey-haired Devi, sitting outside her thatched-roof hut in Sarai, a village just outside the Hindu holy city of Varanasi.

Women form more than 49 per cent of India’s 814 million voters, but many of them, especially in rural India, feel their concerns are not taken seriously by political parties, and that they take a back seat to men in everything from health care to education to legal protection.

Nearly seven decades after independence from Britain in 1947, India has had many formidable female leaders. The best known, Indira Gandhi, was prime minister for 15 years. The current leader of the ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, is the widow of Indira’s son, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

In this April 2, 2014 photo, chairperson of India’s ruling United Progressive Alliance and Congress party President Sonia Gandhi, center, is welcomed with flowers as she arrives to file her nomination papers for the general elections in  India. AP Photo/Manish Swarup

India has had a woman president, a woman speaker of Parliament and women leaders of political parties. Two of India’s biggest states have women chief ministers.

But few Indian women feel these leaders have served them well. And women leaders have rarely made women’s issues a priority.

Women in West Bengal were particularly incensed last year when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the state’s top elected leader, tried to play down a rash of rapes in the state and said her administration was unable to speed up trials of rape cases that have been pending in courts, sometimes for decades.

Amendments to India’s constitution that would reserve for women a third of all seats in Parliament and state assemblies have been hanging for more than a decade.

“Most women leaders are careful not to identify themselves with women’s causes. They fear they will be marginalized in their own parties,” said Suniti Kumar, a shop manager from Varanasi. “In that, they are not so different from the men.”

For millions of Indian women, the national elections that take place every five years are merely a minor distraction in their quietly desperate lives.

Every day Devi, a 42-year-old widow, wakes well before dawn to accompany her teenage daughter to the nearby field they use as a toilet. They collect buckets of drinking water before heading to work in the landlord’s fields. On days when there is no farm work available, she toils at a nearby brick kiln. The money Devi earns, and the pittance her daughter gets doing odd jobs, is just enough to feed her and her three children.

While India has a growing middle class, tens of millions of women still struggle with illiteracy, poverty and little social status. For these women, political choices are often still made by their husbands or male community leaders.

In this March 31, 2014 photo, Chaya Kumari, a field worker with a nongovernmental organization, speaks to village women in Sarai village on the outskirts of Varanasi, India. AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Chaya Kumari, a field worker with a nongovernmental organization in Varanasi, makes her own political choices, and knows she is in the minority.

“My husband wants me to vote for his candidate. I refused and there is little he can do about it,” she said, her voice filled with determination.

Kumari said she can defy her husband because she holds a steady job and is not financially dependent on him.

For most Indian women, safety remains their biggest concern.

Outrage seized India more than a year ago when a young woman was gang-raped on a moving New Delhi bus and later died of her injuries, becoming a symbol of the dangers that millions of women face every time they leave their homes.

An outpouring of protests pushed the government, and political leaders of all hues, to join the cause. Since then, voyeurism, stalking and the trafficking of women have been made criminal offences, courts dealing with sex crimes have become faster and men who are repeatedly convicted of rape have become eligible for the death penalty.

Political parties also promised to find ways to empower women — though have done very little to follow through. Except for the high-profile female leaders, most parties field few women candidates. The last general election saw 59 women, or a little over 10 per cent, elected to the lower house of Parliament, out of 543 members. India ranks 99th in the world in terms of female representation among legislators.

Few women politicians have the money they need to fund campaigns, making them dependent on parties for financial help. Fewer still get that help.

“The biggest hurdle women in politics face is from within the political parties to which they belong,” said Sehba Farooqui, a New Delhi-based political activist.

Major parties are careful to include women in their platforms, though the communists are the only one that favours setting aside one-third of legislative seats for women.

The Congress party says it will “provide women equal access to social, economic and political opportunities,” and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party says it will “transform the quality of life of women in rural India.” But the most serious attempts to reach women voters are done with free saris and pressure cookers.

“Women see through these ploys. They want politicians to deal with their real problems. They want jobs … if not for themselves, then for their children,” Kumari said.

In Sarai, Devi’s woes stem from the abject poverty that grips the region, in Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state. Decades of poor governance have left literacy levels low, health care abysmal and other public services lacking.

In this April 4, 2014 photo, an Indian woman worker carrying her one-year-old child smiles in front of the camera while working at a brick kiln at Karchana, 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Allahabad, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh

Devi cooks over a small fire she makes with sticks, and gets water from a hand pump shared by nine families. Rusted pipes reaching from an irrigation canal some distance away end abruptly near the village, evidence of failed promises made during a 2009 election.

“When politicians want our vote, they say: ‘Sister, we will get you water pipelines, we will get you higher wages,”‘ said Devi.

“They win, and then they forget their sisters.”

03:24ET 11-04-14

[+]

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,



Readers Comments (0)

Comments are closed.

Featured

Andrew Macdonald, regional general manager for Uber Central, which includes all of Canada and the Central U.S., admits that Uber hasn’t always been in control of its message.

Can Uber bury its PR disasters once and for all and prove it’s a force for good?

KRISTINE OWRAM FINANCIAL POST When Uber Technologies Inc. launched its UberX ride-hailing service in Toronto last September, it went out of its way to make…
Continue Reading »

Yellow police crime-scene tape and evidence cones surround a crashed car after a shooting in Surrey that resulted in a man’s death Sunday. Wayne Leidenfrost/PNG

Man killed in Sunday morning Surrey shooting linked to recent spree of violence; is nephew of NDP MLA Harry Bains

FRANK LUBA VANCOUVER DESI A shooting death early Sunday in Surrey has been linked to the recent spree of shootings in the community, police said…
Continue Reading »

Ankit Keshri. Submitted photo/Facebook

Young Indian batsman Ankit Keshri dies after freak field accident during one-day cricket match

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS KOLKATA, India — Indian cricket batsman Ankit Keshri died early Monday, three days after suffering a head injury in a freak accident…
Continue Reading »

LOCAL NEWS

Breast cancer in South Asian women often diagnosed at later stage: study

By Sheryl Ubelacker THE CANADIAN PRESS TORONTO — Women of South Asian descent are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer in its later…
Continue Reading »

Yellow police crime-scene tape and evidence cones surround a crashed car after a shooting in Surrey that resulted in a man’s death Sunday. Wayne Leidenfrost/PNG

Man killed in Sunday morning Surrey shooting linked to recent spree of violence; is nephew of NDP MLA Harry Bains

FRANK LUBA VANCOUVER DESI A shooting death early Sunday in Surrey has been linked to the recent spree of shootings in the community, police said…
Continue Reading »

Canada in middle of the pack in global poll on environmental concern

By Bob Weber THE CANADIAN PRESS A new global poll of consumers in 23 countries suggests Canadians are middle of the pack when it comes…
Continue Reading »

Don't Miss...

Indian recipes-Vancouver Desi

Taste India: Mix creamed spinach with crispy paneer

RANDY SHORE POSTMEDIA NEWS When I go looking for ways to use garden greens, I often turn to Indian cuisine. Saag paneer is creamed spinach…
Continue Reading »

Vancouver-Surrey

Sikh community celebrates a harvest of goodness in B.C

JAGDEESH MANN VANCOUVER DESI For Vancouver publisher, Harbinder Singh Sewak, the dream was four years in the making. This week, as millions of Sikhs around…
Continue Reading »

Narendra Modi welcomed in Toronto

Photos: Modi-mania hits Canada

VANCOUVER DESI Check out photos of Indian Prime Mininster Narendra Modi’s visit to Canada. RELATED STORIES: “Rock-star” Modi to get Bollywood-style welcome at Surrey Hindu…
Continue Reading »

Desi-shooting-Surrey

11 of 19 Surrey/Delta shootings between South Asian, Somalian groups

Even the wounded won’t help cops investigate drug dealers’ war KIM BOLAN POSTMEDIA NEWS METRO VANCOUVER — Two groups of young drug dealers who have…
Continue Reading »

Royal Wedding

Aga Khan’s eldest son Prince Rahim and his wife Kendra Salwa Spears announce birth of first child

VANCOUVER DESI The Aga Khan’s eldest son Prince Rahim and his wife Princess Salwa (Kendra Salwa Spears) announced the arrival of their first child Tuesday….
Continue Reading »


Bollywood Latest

FRANCE-ENTERTAINMENT-CANNES-FILM-FESTIVAL

Bollywood divas Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Sonam Kapoor to dazzle Cannes 2015 (with photos)

IANS Mumbai – Actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who is gearing up for her comeback on the silver screen, will be scorching the red carpet of…
Continue Reading »

Sonam Kapoor

Gallery: Bollywood fashionista Sonam Kapoor’s “Indian elements” at Cannes

VANCOUVER DESI As Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor, our very own desi fashionista who likes fusion fashion and has often chosen classy ensembles with “Indian elements”…
Continue Reading »

Aishwarya Rai

Gallery: Aishwarya Rai’s hot and not styles at Cannes

ALMAS MEHERALLY VANCOUVER DESI When the world’s brightest stars walk the red carpet at Cannes this May, movie fans will be watching closely. Former beauty…
Continue Reading »