Sajjad Hussain / AFP / Getty Images

Is India on the cusp of a gender revolution?

Grass-roots campaigns for female candidates are making an impact in India’s first nationwide elections since 2009

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.”

Raveela Gangula.

India is no stranger to strong female leaders — from former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Mayawati, who rose from a marginalized community to become the powerful chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh. But community leaders like Gangula are hoping to make women’s voices heard at the grass-roots level.

Around voting season, local politicians have started approaching her microlending organizations, known as self-help groups, with promises of loans and better roads. These candidates recognize a potential voting base, Gangula said, and the influence that women have on their families.

The 38-year-old hopes this clout can keep politicians accountable when threatening situations arise like the abusive husband in Muthangi.

“We are thinking of telling the candidates who campaign in our village that women will vote for him only if he agrees to support us in acting against violence,” Gangula said, sitting at a local lending bank with women from her groups.

“If enough women get together, then there is nobody who won’t listen.”

While community leaders like Gangula hope to influence candidates for reform, some women have turned their experiences with injustice into campaigns.

Dayamani Barla, a woman from the eastern state of Jharkhand, is running for a seat in the national parliament after years of fighting mining companies that she said had displaced 8 million people.

It was not an easy road to politics for Barla. She worked as a farmhand, laborer and dishwasher to finance her education. She became involved with the anti-mining movement, starting a local newspaper and fighting against her people’s displacement, even when it landed her in jail.

As polls opened in April, Barla campaigned in tribal Jharkand as part of the Aam Aadmi Party, which was launched in 2012 to combat corruption.

“In this society the men make decisions, and men don’t say that women should come out or voice their concerns,” she said, adding that many female candidates are family members of better-known male politicians. “But the Aam Aadmi Party gave us this space so that more women can come out and be part of the political process.”

Loose talk

New Delhi residents line up to vote on April 10, 2014.
Baldev Kapoor / Polaris

The party’s supporters say it has shaken up Indian politics by fielding 54 women, often with working-class roots. But the incumbent Indian National Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party have also ramped up their gestures toward female voters — promising to reserve one-third of parliamentary seats for women and peppering speeches with phrases like “women’s empowerment.”

Advocates have dismissed this as condescending loose talk that hardly changes the status quo.

“Parties get away very lightly with talking about protecting women and other issues in an abstract manner,” said Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and one of the country’s most vocal feminist voices after the Delhi rape.

She said Aam Aadmi might field strong female candidates like Barla but hasn’t addressed other long-standing examples of inequality, such as khap panchayats, the all-male village councils that enforce informal, sometimes illegal rules like banning mobile phones for women.

“All the parties fail to speak a language of women’s emancipation without embarrassment,” Krishnan said. “Ultimately the system is still extremely patriarchal.The whole language of politics is extremely patriarchal.”

Sennimalai, one of the women running with the Congress Party, said one problem is that men dominate the leadership of major political parties.

“We need our politicians and policymakers to understand that every decision they make has a gender dimension to it, and usually women are the most affected,” she said.

‘No man will ever do that’

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.”

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