MUTHANGHI, Andhra Pradesh — In late March, Raveela Gangula rallied a dozen women to stop a drunken man from savagely beating his wife in Muthangi, a village in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Although they restrained him and called the police, he was released that evening without charges.
“The police should have locked him up for at least a week and scared him from ever touching another woman like that again,” Gangula said. “The government does not support us.”
For Gangula, the tenacious leader of a local microlending organization for women, the injustice was another reason to challenge a broken system — especially at a moment when India appears ready for change.
As the world’s largest democracy undertakes its first national elections since 2009, many women — from village leaders to parliamentary contenders — are now running against the stubborn men’s club of Indian politics, which too often ignores women’s issues. India’s parliament has one of the lowest rates of gender equity in the world, with women occupying just 11 percent of its 545 seats. Women have historically voted at lower rates than men, accounting for 45 percent of votes cast in 2009.
But trends are slowly changing, and this year’s elections could be a turning point. According to data from the Election Commission, 66 percent of eligible women voted in 2009 — up significantly from the 1960s, when fewer than half of eligible women showed up at the polls.
The gender ratio of voting has also improved. One study has found that there are now at least 883 female voters for every 1,000 male voters, compared with 715 in the 1960s. Women voted in record numbers in state elections last year and have outvoted men in five of the 13 states that have polled so far in the current elections.
Meanwhile, political parties are under pressure to address women’s rights after the gang rape of a young student in New Delhi triggered furious protests and heated dialogue in 2012.
“We as a nation are on the cusp of revolution with regard to women’s participation in politics,” said Jothimani Sennimalai, a first-time parliamentary candidate from the state of Tamil Nadu. “We saw a major gender transformation in the last two decades, with a dramatic increase of women in the formal workforce. I see a similar movement building in the world of politics.”
Parties have traditionally targeted class or caste lines, not gender, when campaigning — a strategy tailored for India’s cultural mosaic and socioeconomic strata. But activists like Aprajita Pandey worry that women won’t gain political ground unless they overcome these divisions.
The community organizer works with Delhi-based Haiyya to bring together women of all backgrounds to discuss issues that serve as common ground, like safety and access to public spaces.
“There are different sections of women, like minority women and elite women, and they all have their different social realities,” she said. “So how do you bring about the value that [women] are different but share a common identity, a common struggle?”
Pandey said organizing women works only when they can see their shared experience — when, for instance, housewives recognize that domestic workers need safer streets when they go home from work late.
Without that understanding, the divisions among women can defeat them.
Before she became an influential community leader in Andhra Pradesh, Gangula said she faced discrimination from other women, back when she was just a quiet self-help group member who sat silently at meetings with her head against the wall.
In 2011 her organization required that somebody from a disadvantaged caste be elected leader next. Gangula, who is a member of the historically marginalized dalit caste, was pushed to lead the group.
Her new role didn’t mean she was immediately accepted. “As soon as I walked out the door, the other women said things like, ‘How can she lead the group? We cannot enter her house,’” she said, referring to a prejudice that dalits are untouchable or unclean. “My heart sank.”
But the painful remarks also fueled her determination. Three years later, Gangula has won subsequent elections and provides support to community women of all backgrounds. And that network, she said, is their strength.
“Only women will think for other women,” she said. “No man will ever do that. We’re here to look after ourselves.”