As India takes over the presidency of G20, it is an occasion to celebrate political empowerment — a stupendous increase in women voter turnout in the decade has strengthened and made our democracy more progressive.
ON THE OCCASION of the 75th year of India’s independence, the Prime Minister articulated a bold vision that in the coming 25 years, “Nari Shakti” would play a vital role in India’s socio-economic developmental journey. Culturally and mythologically, women have enjoyed an elevated status in India. For example, it is mentioned in the Kena Upanishad that it was the goddess Uma who enlightened the three powerful but ignorant gods, Indra, Vayu, and Agni, to the profound mystery of Brahman. Despite the recognition of women’s power in ancient texts and thought, the experience of women in the modern era has been far from ideal. They have faced discrimination in the household and at jobs, and for a long time, they were victims of political indifference and neglect. However, in recent decades, “Nari Shakti” has been reasserted through micro and silent revolutions. Here, I wish to lend a voice to some of the silent women led changes transforming our society politically and economically and also highlight the challenges that remain in women fulfilling their true potential as modern nation builders of India.
Women voters are an essential driver of Indian democracy. Our research on women voters using historical data has revealed that since 2010, the gender gap in voter turnout has diminished significantly and the recent trends show women voter turnout often exceeds male voter turnout. This massive increase is a nationwide phenomenon and is also observed in less developed regions of the country where traditionally, the status of women has been significantly lower. A key implication of this is that women voters can no longer be marginalised or neglected; they demand respect and command attention. This silent revolution has compelled political entrepreneurs and grounded leaders to design policies addressing issues that women care about. It is not surprising that some of the most dramatic policy changes concerning poverty reduction since 2015- 16 have been in the form of networking of households across the nation through amenities such as cooking fuel, sanitation, water, and electricity. These are also the key drivers of long-term economic growth. In less developed regions where women and children have been the biggest victims of lawlessness, the silent revolution of rising women voters has compelled political parties to make law and order a critical political issue.
Our research on women voters using historical data has revealed that since 2010, the gender gap in voter turnout has diminished significantly and the recent trends show women voter turnout often exceeds male voter turnout.
Another equally important political change, although less noticed, is that since 2010, many more women have been contesting elections. To put this in perspective, in the 1950s, in the state assembly elections, women contested elections in approximately 7percent of the constituencies, but by the 2010s, women were competing in 54 percent of the constituencies. However, this dramatic increase is yet to translate into more women entering the corridors of power, but the creation of a robust pipeline of women leaders is steadily underway. This is particularly remarkable at the grassroots panchayat level where 50 per cent seats have been reserved for women for over a decade now. Women’s political empowerment has been a bottom-up revolution in India and holds lessons for other countries.
One of the biggest challenges that Indian women face is concerning employment. According to World Bank data, the female labour force participation rate has declined from 32 per cent in 2005 to 19 per cent in 2022. It is, however, important to remind ourselves that labour force participation only accounts for market able employment opportunities and does not consider unpaid domestic services, which include household services such as taking care of the children and the elderly. Our research based on data from the time use surveys in India in 2018–19 reveals that women in the age group of 25 to 59 years spend approximately seven hours daily in unpaid domestic services. If one could put a price to this, then the level of India’s GDP would be significantly higher, and a truer picture of women’s economic contribution would emerge. We also find that women who work approximately six hours daily in marketable employment and related activities spend around four hours additionally on unpaid household services. This double burden of workers perhaps is one of the critical reasons for the decline in the women’s labour force participation rate. In sharp contrast, working or non-working men in the same age group spend less than 45 minutes on unpaid domestic or caregiving services.
Our research based on data from the time use surveys in India in 2018–19 reveals that women in the age group of 25 to 59 years spend approximately seven hours daily in unpaid domestic services.
It is essential to look at the experience of advanced countries, where increased participation of women in the labour force has come at the expense of family structure. Fertility rates have declined dramatically below the replacement rate, the share of the ageing population has increased, and there is an alarming increase in the percentage of kinless elderly. Subsequently, the economies spend a large share of the GDP on providing care. Moreover, it is crucial to bear in mind that the care industry is labour-intensive and, therefore, subject to Baumol Cost Disease, implying that the cost of providing care would keep rising over time. The dynamics of the care industry and the breakdown of the family structure in advanced economies hold important lessons for India. If we want more women to participate in the labour force, and at the same time preserve the family structure, then men would have to share the burden of unpaid domestic services. This would require a break from tradition and the creation of new modern narratives and myths.
As India takes over the presidency of G20, it is an occasion to celebrate “Nari Shakti” and political empowerment—a stupendous increase in women voter turnout in the decade has strengthened and made our democracy more progressive. Political parties and leaders are now responding to this by improving access and affordability to basic needs of ordinary people like amenities and infrastructure rather than focusing on the rhetoric of caste and communalism. This is in sharp contrast to the “democratic recession” that is being experienced in the rest of the world.
This commentary originally appeared in Indian Express.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).
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