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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 46, New Delhi, October 31, 2020

Bihar Assembly Elections 2020: “Missing” Women in the Party Manifestos | Anamika Priyadarshini and Sonmani Choudhary

Saturday 31 October 2020

by Anamika Priyadarshini and Sonmani Choudhary *

The Bihar Assembly Elections is the first poll being conducted in India since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic. This three-phased assembly election for 253 seats will be over on November 7th and the results are likely to be announced on November 10th. One of the commonly referred point about Bihar elections has been women voters’ constantly rising turnout in the past four assembly elections. Women voters’ proportion has been on rise since 2005 and they have been outnumbering male voters since 2010. During the 2015 state assembly elections, women’s voting percentage was about 7 percent higher than that of men. Of the total registered women voters, over 60 percent casted their vote as against of their 53 percent male counterparts.

This phenomenon reflects an interesting paradox as the state is also known for its alarming gender gap. However, neither the women voters’ high turnout nor the wide gender gap seem to catch the contesting political parties’ attention. Concern for the state’s wide gender gap is glaringly missing from the political parties’ manifestos. Though women are mentioned as beneficiaries of a few enticing policies, there seem to be no clear plan to bridge gender gap in the state. In sum, women voters’ contribution in the electoral politics does not seem to instigate any willingness to bridge gender gap within the Bihar assembly by the political parties.

Ironically, the reluctance to recognize gender issues or to ensure women’s representation in politics continues to prevail amidst gender’s proliferation as one of the most celebrated aspect of Bihar’s electoral politics and governance. The Government of Bihar (GoB) had been particularly vocal about its women centric policies, ranging from reservations to alcohol prohibition. Nonetheless, the GoB’s Gender Report Card for 2018 shows that women’s representation in the current state assembly is as low as 11.5 percent. Total number of women assembly legislators in Bihar had actually declined from 14 percent (34 out of 243 MLAs were women) in the 15th Bihar Assembly to 11.5 percent (28 out of 243 MLAs are women) in the current Assembly. Considering the low proportion of women candidates contesting the 2020 elections, it can be safely argued that sex ratio of the 16th Bihar Assembly will continue to remain blatantly low.
Proportion of women candidates contesting from various political parties in Bihar elections is abysmally low. Apart from Janta Dal United (JDU), no political party have been vocal about their willingness or commitment to allocate tickets to women candidates. JDU is fielding 22 women in this election which constitute about 19 percent of the party’s total candidates. This proportion is not even 15 percent in case of other political parties. JDU is followed by LJP (13 percent) and BJP (12 percent). Women comprise only 10 percent of the total candidates contesting on the behalf of Grand Alliance in this election. Low proportion of women candidates reinforces the conventional understanding that perceive women candidates weaker and assumes that probability of women candidates’ success is not as strong as male candidates. However, the available evidence contradicts this perception. It was clear in the 2014 parliament elections that women candidates’ performance largely depended on the overall performance of their respective political parties. In the last Bihar assembly elections, less than 7 percent of the total men who contested elections could win and become an MLA. This rate was over 10 percent in case of women candidates. Yet, women do not comprise even 20 percent of the total candidates contesting on behalf of any political party in Bihar.

As shared above, most of the political parties’ manifestos lack an agenda for addressing the state’s wide gender gap. Except for newly formed The Plurals Party, gender does not emerge as an important issue in the election manifestos of major political parties of Bihar. Plurals called for empowering women by promoting economic engagement for them and the manifesto promises job to one woman in each BPL family. To address safety and mobility issues, the party also promises to install CCTV cameras at a massive scale. On the other hand, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) has promised to offer free bus ride and salary instead of commission to Jeevika Didis and ASHA workers whereas Rashtriya Janata Dal has assured to double their (ASHA and Jeevika didis’) remuneration.
Manifesto of Congress includes promises like free education for girls from kindergarten to post graduation, referred as from “KG to PG”, and scooty for girl students who score above 90 percent in intermediate exams. However, there seem to be no preparedness for bridging the state’s distressing gender gap as none of the manifesto has come up with a roadmap to improve the socio-economic condition of women during their tenure if elected. Further, there are clear doubts that manifesto pledges in reference to women and girls will lead to anything tangible. It is clear that women voters count but not their fundamental issues.

Bihar continues to remain the state with most critical development and gender development indicators in the country despite substantial progress in past few years. This must be one of the core concerns for any party or coalition that forms government in Bihar. The upcoming government needs to have a clear agenda to assess what works for women and design policies and initiatives accordingly. The state had numerous policies and programmes to promote women’s economic participation and yet, as per Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS, 2018), with less than 5 percent, the state has the lowest female workforce participation rate (FWFPR) in the country. Addressing the issue of extremely low FWFPR must be one of the top priorities for the upcoming government.
Several research suggest that women’s health and survival is deeply influenced by their participation in remunerable and recognizable work. Active and visible involvement of women in netted work is crucial for improving women’s overall condition in Bihar. The GoB has introduced numerous programmes and policies to enhance women’s economic participation like reservation for women in government jobs, skill training programmes, Jeevika, special leaves for working women, Balika Cycle Yojana, MKUY etc. But, as the Gender Report Card (2019) shows, only 26 out of 45 government departments have women employees. The new government needs to understand why women’s participation in economy is worryingly low despite all efforts. The Gender Report Card (2019) also highlights that women’s access to technology, information, education, training opportunities could be some of the key reasons behind low economic participation of women in Bihar. Information regarding available employment opportunities needs to be advertised and women need to access essential opportunities for preparing themselves for the job market. Furthermore, the workplace, schools, colleges and public space needs to have at least basic services like clean separate girls’/women’s toilet, girls’/women’s common room, crèche, clean drinking water and a functional Internal Complain Committee.

Women’s preparedness for the job market and ability to retain job also depends on how safe they are at their homes, workplace and public space. Moreover, women’s safety is also essential for their survival as well as their mental and physical well-being. But, as per NCRB report for 2018, Bihar holds 8th position for its overall crime against women (CAW) in India. Unlike the national data, cruelty by husband and his relatives or assault on women to outrage her modesty do not constitute maximum CAW in the state. Interestingly, kidnapping & abduction (K&A) comprise over 50 percent of the total reported CAW in Bihar. Marriage has been recorded as the most common reason behind K&A of women and girls, often minor girls, in Bihar. This data poses serious question on safety of girls and women in public space. However, the reckoning of abysmally high reporting of this particular crime in a state where reporting of CAW is considerably low merits a deeper analysis.

It is also important to understand the prime reasons behind underreporting of CAW and the common underreported CAW in Bihar. COVID crisis has underscored the fact that helpline and other services aimed at helping women in need or promoting help seeking behaviour among women have not been very effective. The state’s shelter homes have not yet evolved as a reassuring space for women survivors of violence. The PWDVA (Prevention of Women from Domestic Violence Act) act mandates Protection Orders and Right to Residence for women, even after registering complaint against their marital family, in the marital home. However, in the absence of an effective enforcement mechanism, women survivors of domestic violence often refrain from seeking help. They need effective shelter homes where they could go after registering complaint against their abusive marital family or as survivors of any other form of violence and abuse. It is also important to reinforce domestic violence as a crime and condemn its status as a personal/family matter. Women’s safety and security, both at home and outside, should be an important concern for the new government.

As per the Global Gender Gap Report for 2019, India holds 150th position for its gender gap on health and survival. Within India, this gap is wider in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Though there has been considerable improvement in the health indicators of women in Bihar, women’s health remains a serious public health concern for the state. An important challenge in this regard is that women are usually perceived as the beneficiaries of reproductive health and family planning programmes. It is important to focus on women’s overall health rather than just on their reproductive health. This approach often excludes elderly women. Caste also plays an important role in women’s ability to access health services and facilities. The state has succeeded in reviving and building more Primary Health Centres (PHCs) and Community Health Centres (CHCs) in the recent past. But these health centres lack required number of skilled people who could run those health centres effectively. The new government should focus on making public health services more effective and approachable for women, especially for women from the underprivileged communities. Condition of women’s safety and their health must be one of the most pertinent concerns for the upcoming government.

The indicators pertaining to educational attainment of girls and women in the state had also improved in the recent past. But crisis often revives patriarchal norms and deepens divide. The COVID crisis had a devastating impact on the state’s socio-economic development and one can safely assume that girls are more likely to drop-out of their schools in near future. Special measures need to be taken to retain girls in school and also to promote their enrolment in school. Another issue that seek the upcoming government’s attention is women’s condition in urban space, specially living in crowded and unhygienic urban slums. Along with numerous health and occupational hazards, access to basic facilities like clean drinking water and clean toilet are some of the most unnerving everyday challenge for women slum dwellers. They are mostly engaged in underpaid, unorganized and often unrecognized work. In some cases, their work is not even considered legal. Urban planning and beautification projects often dismantle the slum areas and possibly women living in those slums are hardest hit by such initiatives. Urban slums play a crucial role in the economy and special measures should be taken to at least ensure basic services like clean public toilet, safe drinking water, sanitary napkins, provision for approachable and affordable health care services etc. for people living in urban slums.

Finally, the prevalent perception that considers women politicians as “weak candidates” or “dummy representatives” need to be scrutinized. It is true that in many cases husbands represent or take lead on the behalf of woman representatives. Nonetheless, issues like condition of the transport system and non-cooperative (and even demeaning) approach of concerned officials towards women in politics are some of the factors that need to be considered before labelling any woman politician as “dummy” representative. Women politicians are living and working in a predominantly patriarchal space. Yet, as the available data shows, they are not only outnumbering male voters but are also outperforming male candidates in the state’s assembly elections. The popular perception about women in politics needs to be countered through evidence as it is playing a crucial role in the widening of gender gap in Bihar assembly. Considering women politicians’ performance, labelling them as “weak” candidates or “dummy representatives” would imply dismissing available evidence on women politicians’ impressive performance in elections. More importantly, it will further widen the gender gap in state. The political parties and the upcoming government need to take cognizance of available evidence regarding women politicians’ performance and re-initiate the quitted discussion on Women’s Reservation Bill.

(* Authors:

1. Dr Anamika Priyadarshini
Anamika has mainly worked on gender, with a special focus on informal women workers, as a development professional and an academic in Bihar, Delhi and the US. She has a Masters in International Development from Cornell University and a PhD in Global Gender Studies from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

2. Ms Sonmani Choudhary
With over 16 years of national and international experience, Sonmani is part of several initiatives which aim to bridge the gap by generating robust evidence to inform policy implementation, driving evidence-based advocacy through a network of researchers, and providing technical support to the concerned agencies.)

Disclaimer: The views shared in this article are authors’ personal views.

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