“Voting has become an empowering act for women. It gives women the feeling that they are independent to do what they want.” The words came from Smita Gupta, deputy editor at The Hindu, right after the five state elections in India 2012. The five states were Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Uttarakhand and Goa, and all of them had one thing in common: more women than men had gone to the ballot boxes across all the states. The biggest difference was seen in Goa with 85.97 percent women voting in comparison to 79.67 percent men. As I have mentioned earlier, Goa is on top when it comes to literacy rates and standard of living compared to rest of India. No one was therefore very surprised that they took the lead in voting. I read the statistics some months ago and concluded that “oh, education must be the answer”. Five months later I am not so sure about that any longer.
The political parties in Goa are very effective in the work of setting up self-help groups for women. This might sound creditable and according to the politicians themselves it is an act of empowering the women. Unfortunately, that is not the whole truth. For the time being I am in Goa seeking an answer to the high voting ratio and it seems as if I there is a tragic connection between voting behavior and self-help groups. Self-help groups are not formed for empowerment – they are formed as vote banks. By promises a vote is easily bought by the politicians from the most vulnerable people in society – the poor women. After the elections (when they have brought the whole family to vote for the candidate) they are all left with unfulfilled promises. Voting should therefore not only be seen as a sign of independence, it might instead be a proof for dependency.
Nevertheless, political parties that are exploiting women in an effort to get their votes should not make us critical to self-help groups in general. Last week I was in Karnataka visiting a village on the countryside of Gulbarga. The self-help groups were set up by an NGO some years ago but they had now stopped coming out to the village since the groups were considered to be self-managing. All work was done by the village women, without any vested interests from outside. That is probably the only way to go if we want to make Smita Guptas words about voting real and give women: “…the feeling that they are independent to do what they want.”