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Women participation on the upswing

Fifty years ago, a political party with ambitions of winning in Bihar could safely ignore its women. Not only were far fewer women than men registered to vote, but even fewer actually showed up to vote. In 1967, for instance, female turnout was 41 per cent to 61 per cent for men, a far larger difference than the average margin of victory in a constituency.



Rukmini S.
Not any more. In the >first four phases of Bihar’s 2015 assembly elections, female voter turnout has surpassed male turnout. With just 9 lakh more male voters than female voters in the four phases, or fewer than 5,000 votes for each assembly constituency, women are finally in a position to swing the outcome.

The story of the growing participation of India’s women in its elections is one of the defining features of the last 60 years of elections and political parties are beginning to take notice of the changing tide.

Male voter turnout in Lok Sabha elections has grown only slightly, from 60.87 per cent of registered voters in 1971 to 67 per cent in 2014. Female voter turnout grew by more than twice as much in the same period, from 49.11 per cent to 65.54 per cent.

In 21 of 30 Indian States, female voter turnout exceeded male turnout in their most recent assembly elections, an analysis of Election Commission (EC) data shows. In the remaining nine — Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra — the gap between male and female turnouts has narrowed to its sharpest point. Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra are the States with the largest remaining difference between male and female turnout.

However, India remains some distance from gender parity in its electorate. Higher voter turnouts for women might indicate a greater desire or ability of women to vote once registered, but women still lag behind men substantially in their representation in the electorate. Moreover, the trend continues; before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, women formed just 41 per cent of all new voters in the 18-19 age group registered by the ECI.

>Female registered voters were equal to or greater in number than male registered voters in just seven States/ Union Territories in each of their most recent assembly elections — Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Kerala, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Puducherry. Delhi, with its large migrant population, has India’s most adverse elector sex ratio of just 801 women registered to vote for every 1,000 male registered voters, The Hindu’s analysis of elector data in all States shows. It is followed by Uttar Pradesh.

While male migration out of the State explains, as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley suggested, some of the increase in female turnouts, it is not a complete explanation. For one, States with high out-migration of men would be expected to have higher feminisation in the general adult population and the electorate, and not only in the voting population, which EC and Census data shows is not always the case.

Explaining female voter deficit

To some extent, adverse sex ratios of the general adult population explain this female voter deficit. Using Census data for persons aged 18 and above, > The Hindu found that Delhi, followed by Jammu and Kashmir, has the worst adult population sex ratio. However, in most States, the elector sex ratios are worse than the general population’s. One clear example of the gradual attrition that takes place is when it comes to women voters in Gujarat, which has an adult sex ratio of 943 women for every 1,000 adult men. Its elector sex ratio is slightly more adverse — just 910 women are registered to vote for every 1,000 male registered voters. And then its voter sex ratio is even worse — just 867 women came out to vote in its 2012 assembly election for every 1,000 male voters.

Why does this happen? The ECI commissioned a series of sample surveys across the country to better understand who its electoral rolls were leaving out and how to fix it. In Delhi, for instance, the survey found that Muslims, new migrants, women and young people were less likely to be registered and vote than others. The ECI’s own analysis of its data also showed that Delhi’s voter rolls skewed older and more male than the general population.

In Gujarat, the ECI identified specific communities like the Kathi Darbar community in Amreli district which did not believe women should play a part in the democratic process and targeted awareness programmes at them to raise female turnout.

It will increasingly make political sense for parties to specifically target women voters, a process that has already begun with campaign promises from prohibition to safety that are meant to get the women’s vote. While conventional wisdom has often suggested that women can be coerced by the male members of their families to vote a certain way, this might not necessarily be true. Analysing the results of two assembly elections held in quick succession in 2005 in Bihar, economists Shamika Ravi and Mudit Kapoor found that constituencies where female turnout increased substantially between the two elections saw a change in winning party, and contributed significantly to the formation of a new government.

Simultaneously, parties must think about the electoral gains to be had from nominating more women candidates. Despite an increasingly gender equal electorate, women formed just 8 per cent of all candidates in this Bihar assembly election, up from 7 per cent in 2010. Parties should read the writing on the wall: women voters can swing elections, so representatives must serve them better.

rukmini.s@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2020 10:35:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/women-participation-in-elections-on-the-upswing/article7849785.ece

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