Quotas: now!

I have spent the last 10 weeks in India researching women’s political participation in Goa. The female politicians are very few in the state (only 2 % of the members of the legislative assembly are women). Over and over again I’ve asked female politicians I’ve met: what can be done to solve this problem? What could make you feel encouraged running for an election to the state legislature? To get into the sphere where you rightfully should have an equal share with your male counterparts. Almost everyone has mentioned the same thing: Quotas. We need quotas.

Quotas are not cheating. Quotas are a step to make this world fairer. Here are three reasons why:

 1. THERE’S ALREADY RESERVATION FOR MEN

Common to all 192 countries in the world today is the fact that people on the highest positions in society are men. That is not because they are more competent. That is because we today have a structure in society; let’s call it an invisible reservation bill, which favors men. Some people like to call it “natural”, but believe me, there is nothing in the set of genes in the male body that make them better suited for ruling positions. By implementing a reservation for women this unnatural pattern of power could be broken.

 2. MORE COMPETENCE & A BROADENED AGENDA

Quotas are not used to exclude competent men; they are for used to bring out the competent women. Many female politicians I talked to in India expressed a conviction that their experience would change today’s prioritizes in politics.

In Karnataka, a neighboring state to Goa, the collections of local taxes have risen more than seven times in the Belandur gram panchayat since they implemented the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment which ensures a 30 % reservation for women on the local level (the panchayati raj). Village surveys carried out in the state of West Bengal and Rajasthan also show that women prioritize projects that meet community needs, such as water and roads, to a larger extent in comparison to men.

3. MORE JUSTICE & DEMOCRACY

Political decisions affect everyone in a society but not in the same way. One of the main objectives for a reservation is that it would increase women’s visibility in all decisions.  This would also lead to a strengthening of the democratic setup. India is often referred to as the biggest democracy in the world but with only 11 % women in the Indian parliament it is obvious that it has some flaws. Democracy does not guarantee everyone to be represented but fundamental to democracy are the principles of equal access to power and that all members should enjoy universally recognized freedoms and liberties.

It takes time to change structures, but quotas are a push in the right direction.

Voters of Dependency

votes of dependency

“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.

votes of dependency 2

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.”

The Lost Daughters

I have now spent three weeks in India. It has been three weeks of an endless number of impressions, which have made me feel both inspired and frustrated, sometimes at the same time. The main reason for that is because of all the women’s activists I have met who are dedicated to change the future for the small girls of the nation. Because if it doesn’t change, there won’t be many girls left in India.

Sex-selective abortion is illegal in India but widely common. A daughter is far too often considered to be a burden and is therefore aborted in favor of a son. Why? Lack of education is usually the answer to most of the problems we are facing in the world (“If people only knew how to read / take care of their garbage / have a good health”) but female feticide seems to have other explanations. In Goa, one of the states in India with the highest standard of living and literacy rates, there are only 920 girls per 1000 boys in the range between 0-6 years. This means that despite a growing wealth the proportion of females has reduced drastically in the last 50 years.

As a response to this alarming trend the chief minister of Goa has designed a scheme which is supposed to stop female feticide, the so called Laadli Laxmi scheme. The idea is to provide 100 000 rupees to every girl child to use for her wedding ceremony. Women’s activists in Goa are furious. Dowry – the idea that the bride’s family should pay money to the family of the groom – has been illegal in India since 1961 but is still a reason to why daughters are unwanted. With the chief minister’s so-called solution the tradition is however encouraged – what else can these 100 000 rupees be called? The women I’ve met have been frustrated – isn’t it the responsibility of any progressive government to completely eliminate such traditions?

Rajeshree Nagarsekar, is one of them who believes that a solution only can be reached through a change in people’s mindset. In 2012 she started Evescape, Goa’s first women’s magazine, which she now is the chief editor of. In every issue of the magazine one picture spread is dedicated to celebrate the girl child. Parents send in photos of their daughter and write a short note about why they love them.

Meeting women such as Rajeshree makes me believe that a real solution actually can be reached, despite politicians who dodge the question and perpetuate gender discriminatory traditions.