Time for Indian voters to hold politicians accountable on women’s issues
April 10, 2013
This election year, voters should begin to hold local, state, and national leaders accountable for their own track records in empowering women and children. If the presumed candidates aim to run on platforms of good governance and “results” for their constituencies, then they ought to answer questions about how they plan to incorporate more women into India’s social and economic life. In a country with a progressive constitution and politically empowered females, it is a shame that women do not play a larger role in India’s economic growth story. The violent tragedies unfolding daily have laid bare a void waiting to be filled; namely, an independent watchdog group able to rank and rate candidates and law enforcement based on their track records and statements about issues important to India’s women.
In December, Indians were protesting in the streets, angry over the tragic rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi. Villagers in Maharashtra were outraged at the violent deaths of three young sisters, murdered and tossed into a well. Then a seven-year-old in a government school in New Delhi was raped. It is a sad commentary that these crimes would likely have gone unnoticed by authorities had the earlier rape in New Delhi not raised such overwhelming public outrage. What will it take for elected officials and law enforcement to feel accountable?
International rankings regularly show Indian women are not advancing economically or socially at the same rate that India’s overall emergence as a 21st century power might suggest. A recent Thomson Reuters poll placed India in 19th place out of the G-20 nations in terms of women’s empowerment, beating out only Saudi Arabia. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report ranked India at 105 out of 135. But breaking down the Forum’s rankings reveals a mixed record: for political empowerment, India ranks an astounding 17/135, for health and survival 134/135, educational attainment 121/135, and economic participation and opportunity 123/135. The disconnect between political empowerment and the other indicators is stark.
If the appeal of women’s empowerment in-and-of itself isn’t a strong enough incentive to drive change, then perhaps the economic benefits it brings is. The loss in GDP that India incurs because of low female economic participation is a major drag on the overall economy. Lakshmi Puri, the deputy executive director of UN Women, noted in 2011 that India’s growth rate could jump by 4.2 percent if women were given more opportunities.
Some politicians are getting the message, while others remain mired in the past. Chief Minister Modi recently commented that Gujarat’s women are particularly concerned with their figures to explain why malnutrition rates haven’t budged in his state, making a mockery of a serious health issue, Gujarat’s female citizens and its hungry children in one fell swoop. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, on the other hand, provided bicycles to teenage girls to get to high school. With a strategic intervention like this, more girls are able to stay in school, drastically increasing their prospects for jobs.
If a watchdog group were to provide easily accessible information to voters on these issues before they go to the polls, politicians and other authorities would feel more accountable for their words and actions, a truly indispensable idea in any modern democracy.
Enacting new laws (or updating old ones) is only one means of combating the violence that India’s women and children face on a daily basis. Sensitization of boys is needed at a younger age. The problem requires a stronger element of education, sensitization, and a nationwide campaign to help nudge those along. India’s leading voices ought to be out front on the issue—actors and entertainers have spoken out, but corporate and community leaders could add even more heft to the idea that the burden is also on society at large to change how women are perceived and treated.
To be fair, violence against women is not unique to India, but India’s standing as a leader of the developing world places a special burden on it to lead the way on important economic development issues.
The growing prevalence of women in India’s workforce is likely to be a source of continuing friction as society adjusts to rapid change. But unless the trusted voices of India’s fathers, mothers, mentors, and teachers counteract the violence with education and guidance, India’s unfortunate reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous places for women will remain intact. That’s not a reputation that inspires confidence. An engaged citizenry, holding candidates accountable for their records in empowering women and children in the upcoming general election, would be a welcome step towards India’s investment in itself.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the Global India Newswire)
Persis Khambatta is a fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India-Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.