Political Quotas: A Proven Policy for Women’s Empowerment
In 1993, India passed the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, which mandates that one-third of all panchayats (village level governing bodies) across the country must reserve their highest-ranking position—the pradhan—for women. The goal of these quotas for women is to take a proactive approach to the chronic underrepresentation of women in our political system.
Twenty years later, our country is in still in the midst of a profound soul search for ways to achieve gender equality. So Badal Ja! decided to do some research on the effectiveness of the quota system in the panchayats—how they help, where they fall short, and what we can do to enable even greater political engagement from women.
What We Know from 20 Years of Female Leadership
One of the most exciting effects of having female pradhans is their democratizing force on the nature of policy discourse. According to a Harvard study on Indian village councils, female villagers are significantly more likely to speak at meetings when the village council leader is a woman. In villages without a female leader, however, women do not speak at all in more than half of the meetings. Therefore, the very fact that female leadership increases female participation can be important for policy outcomes.
It’s not surprising then that women pradhans over the last 20 years have prioritized issues that make a big difference in the everyday life of a woman. For example, a rigorous study on women policy makers by the Poverty Action Lab found that village councils led by female pradhans invested in nine more drinking water facilities and improved road conditions 18% more than male panchayats did. These public services help all citizens, of course, but tend to be higher on the priority list for women, whereas men tend to prioritize concerns about money and security.
Badam Bairwa, an illiterate woman from rural Rajasthan, is a great example of this kind of leadership. Though she never had the confidence or support to enter politics, when her village became reserved for a female pradhan, she found a unique opportunity to fix the issues that affected her and other women from her community. She immediately went to task on building a proper road to their village, enhancing electricity, installing 25 hand pumps and four tube wells, and providing old age pension to women.
The benefits of having female leadership in our panchayats has improved more than just our political system. By providing strong female role models to young girls, the quota system is challenging many cultural norms that inhibit women’s progress. For example, another Poverty Action Lab study on female leadership found that villages that were assigned a female leader for two election cycles closed the gender gap in aspirations by 20% in parents and 32% in adolescents. In other words, simply because they had a woman pradhan, both parents and their daughters were significantly more confident that the daughter could do well in school and find a good job. Because of these aspirational changes, parents in these villages also made their girls spend less time on household chores and more time studying.
On the other hand, gender inequality certainly cannot be fixed just by putting women in power. While the Harvard study concluded that female pradhans, on the whole, do a better job at delivering public services, voters in female-led panchayats expressed greater dissatisfaction with the status of communal public works than those in male-led panchayats. Furthermore, female panchayats were also blamed more often than men for issues beyond the scope of panchayat authority. Such baseless criticism came from both men and women in the villages, showing that cultural biases against women in power prevail across society.
Next Steps: Making Quotas for Women a National Decree
It’s clear that quotas for women in political positions are a powerful tool for achieving greater gender equality. So, the most logical step would be to scale these up to a national level. The Women’s Reservation Bill, or the 108th Amendment Bill, proposes that 33% of all seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies are reserved for women. However, this bill has been rejected year-on-year since it was introduced in 1996. And in July, the Government showed no willingness to put the bill back on the table.
If you’re passionate about getting this bill back for another vote, we recommend that you let your politicians know. You can send a letter to them, or even start a petition to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill.
We must remember, though, that quotas alone won’t do the trick. Females in positions of political authority cannot truly reshape perceptions of women’s abilities at large if their successes are not appreciated, and if they are not judged by the same standards as men. Therefore, quotas for women must be paired with educational and cultural reforms that reshape the way our families and businesses value women, and dismantle the unequal treatment of women woven into daily life.