A Brief History of Women’s Suffrage in India
It was in the early half of the twentieth century that the women’s suffrage movements took shape in Britain. Ripples of this movement began to be felt in British colonies, including India. Several women of the Brahmo Samaj (a reformist movement that emerged in Bengal in the early 19th century) took the demand for women suffrage to the then Viceroy Lord Edward. The colonial government washed their hands off the matter by tagging suffrage as an issue that falls under Provincial Governments.
A bill for women’s suffrage was presented to the Provincial Assembly of Bengal in 1921. Several stalwarts of the nationalist movement felt that this was a distraction from their primary goal- attainment of Swaraj.
Several protest marches, petitions and intense debates later, women were finally granted suffrage rights in 1929 by provisional governments. However, these rights were not for all women. Only those women whose husband or sons were in government service, or had the privilege of owning land, were given the right to vote. This limited women from poorer economic and social backgrounds from accessing the franchise. An added disadvantage was that women voters were often seen as shadows of their male counterparts. Their political decisions were largely governed by the decision of the men in their families.
When India gained independence in 1947, the constituent assembly unanimously decided to design a government system based on universal adult franchise. In 1951, independent India was to witness her first ever election to the state and central governments and a major portion of the work revolved under the compilation of a comprehensive voters list. Over 80 million women were included but interestingly enough several women were excluded because they refused to go by their own name. They continued to cling on the age-old tradition of signing up to vote as a subsidiary of their husbands and found it unbelievable when told that they were to be recognized as independent individuals.
The government leveraged the mass media to try and educate more women on the importance of signing up for the voters list. Pre-Election Voters' Awareness Campaign (PEVAC) is held under the auspices of State Election Commissions and Election Commission of India to ensure maximum voter participation for elections to Panchayati Raj and Municipal Corporations. This campaign covered 100 million electorates in the year 2004-05 alone.
Several NGOs also shouldered the task of creating awareness at the grass root level. Action for Good Governance and Networking in India (AGNI) is a prominent NGO that organizes workshops for the youth and women in order to encourage electoral participation. Daud Memorial Christian Gramin Vikas Samiti, an NGO based in Uttar Pradesh organizes awareness campaigns in front of prominent government offices during elections, encouraging voters to raise questions to local candidates about urban basic services for the poor.
Over the decades every election in India witnessed a common trend- the men made up a larger chunk of the voting population while women lagged far behind. I believe that this can be attributed to lower literacy rates among women as well as stringent enforcement of patriarchal norms in family settings such as prohibiting women from engaging in political conversations within the family. High level of economic dependence of women on the men in their families makes them feel powerless and leads them to believe that they do not have enough power to make a difference through their vote.
A woman voter undergoes thermal screening at the polling booth before casting her vote during recently held Bihar Assembly elections. Image Source: Deccan Herald
However, in the past few years, women have emerged as a significant political force. Several political parties have launched special campaigns targeting women, as opposed to the traditional practice of expecting women voters to align with the political views of men in their family. In the recent national elections held in 2019, we witnessed for the first time in history the number of women voters overtaking men.
What are some of the most important factors that have brought about this radical shift in the number of women voters?
1. The most significant factor is the emergence of social media. Several women in traditionally patriarchal societies have taken to WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook to acquire political information. This empowers them with the knowledge required to select a candidate who can bring out significant transformations in their lives. Social media also provides women with a safe space to express their ideas about politics as well as hold discussions about candidates and party policies which may otherwise not be practical in real life.
2. Rising violence against women is another important factor that has pushed women voters to the polling booth. It has been noted that the rise in the number of women voters is comparatively more in those regions where they have a lower level of safety, such as Uttar Pradesh, as compared to their safer counterparts like Kerala.
3. The increasing representation of women in politics is fueling the rise in women voters. When women voters see women contesting elections, they feel represented in the electoral system. They also feel that their votes are going to make a true difference to their lives. Reservation of seats for women in local self- government bodies has largely scaled up the presence of women representatives in elected bodies. This has also led to a rise in the number of women who vote in Panchayat elections.
What can we do as a society to enhance the political agency of women voters?
1. Normalize Political Discussions in Families
Family settings should become safe spaces for everyone, to openly discuss and debate politics. We should also encourage democratic decision making in the family so that everyone feels they have the power to choose. This can range from fair distribution of household chores to managing the family budget.
2. Promote Gender- Balanced Reporting by Media
Women are hesitant to state their political opinions in public owing to fear of potential harassment. Owing to deeply ingrained bias, male politicians continue to belittle their women counterparts through mass media. However, these comments are often overlooked even by the most inclusive of media houses. Media personnel who stand up to other forms of inequality often turn a blind eye on sexist remarks made by politicians, pointing towards the toxicity of media spaces in the country.
Women politicians often face higher levels of harassment, including economic, social and sexual harassment, than their male counterparts but this often goes unrecognized by the media. This discourages women from taking up active roles in politics. This in turn leads to lower women voter turnout.
In the wake of this scenario, it is very important for the media to construct gender-balanced narratives about political controversies. Mass media should become safe spaces for individuals to express their political opinions regardless of their gender.
3. Mentorship Programs for Women
Governments, educational institutions and NGOs need to actively initiate mentorship programs which empower women with the resources needed to make informed political decisions. These mentorship programs should be adequately funded and participation should be made inclusive. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization that is offering need-based training programs for women aspiring to step into political careers. These guidance programs include workshops by veteran politicians, political experts and grass root level activists as well as hands-on training programs that can make women better equipped to vote and to contest elections.
We need to fund more and more such mentorship programs for women in India.
Adequate financial assistance also needs to be offered to women candidates contesting elections, with special emphasis on creating strong social networks and organizing fundraising events.
Women in India are emerging as a political force to reckon with. This helps strengthen Indian democracy by making it more inclusive and accessible; this trend needs to stay on. It is up to us as responsible citizens to keep the trend alive and kicking.
Anagha Rajesh, Advocate, Women for Politics
Anagha is a passionate speaker, a voracious reader and a youth leader with a passion to make a positive impact in society. She is the co-founder and CEO of MindChamps, a youth organization for mental health awareness. She is an advocate for the Girls in Science for SDG's platform under the aegis of the United Nations. In addition, she has a penchant for Model United Nations conferences and is a TEDx speaker.
She aspires to work at the intersection of STEM and policymaking is reachable on Linkedin here.
This article gives the views of the author, and not necessarily represent the position of Women for Politics.