Are Indian women voting at higher rates than before?

Women in India are casting their ballots more frequently, and in greater numbers. Today, women’s turnout has actually been higher than that of men in two-thirds of India’s state elections. This is a remarkable turn of events in a deeply patriarchal, conservative society.

Why is this so surprising?

Men in India have always turned out to vote in larger numbers than women, as far back as the data goes. As recently as 2004, men held an 8.4 percentage-point turnout advantage over women in national elections. But by 2014, that gap had shrunk to just 1.8 percentage points.

Why is this happening?

That remains something of a puzzle. There is likely a combination of push and pull factors at work: more women want to vote, and institutions are encouraging them more to go to the polls.

Indian women are steadily becoming more literate, more educated, and wealthier. This could be making them more politically aware. They have also been taking part in collective organizing in unprecedented numbers, usually through small local groups in which women encourage one another to save money and pool their resources to pay for emergency needs. Some evidence suggests that when women take part in these economic networks, they are more likely to get involved in politics. These groups were not set up to achieve a political goal, but they may be having political consequences.

State institutions have been trying to make voting easier for women as well. For instance, India’s Election Commission has been trying to encourage more women to vote by improving the safety of polling booths to reduce voter intimidation and by setting up separate queues for women on election day.

Why does this shift matter particularly in India?

For decades, voting in India has been a male-dominated enterprise. And because many more men have always turned out to vote, it is perhaps unsurprising that mainstream parties have never seen women as a vital constituency worth wooing.

It seems plausible that some concerns that disproportionately impact women—such as public safety or healthcare—have often taken a backseat, because women have historically tended to be less politically engaged than men.

Does this shift mean that more women are voting in India than men overall?

No, it doesn’t. More women are voting than ever before, but their overall size as a voting bloc still lags behind men.

This is because even though a higher percentage of female voters go to the polls, there is a significant gender imbalance in India’s general population. According to the country’s 2011 census, the country has approximately 943 women for every 1,000 men. This places India near the bottom at 186 out of 194 countries, according to the World Bank.

The sex ratio among India’s registered voters is even worse. There are only 908 women for every 1,000 men on the country’s voter rolls.

This means that, despite progress, Indian women suffer a double-blow at the polls: above and beyond an entrenched preference for sons (which results in illegal sex-selective abortion and fewer educational opportunities for girls than boys), women are less likely than men to be registered to vote.

Is the fact that more women are voting already making a difference in terms of policy?

It appears to be. As Indian women become more politically mobilized, this seems to be changing how Indian candidates campaign and how they govern once they are in office.

For example, in the state of Bihar, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar brought in a draconian new anti-alcohol law in 2015 when he was reelected. Kumar said that this ban was motivated by a promise he had made on the campaign trail to women, who had told him that rampant alcoholism was devastating their families and communities.

As India gears up for the 2019 general elections, women’s status has become a focal point of campaign rhetoric. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made what are billed as female-friendly policies a hallmark of his platform.

Milan Vaishnav
Vaishnav’s primary research focus is the political economy of India, and he examines issues such as corruption and governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior.
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Modi regularly says that his administration’s efforts to improve sanitation, improve welfare subsidies (for things like the education of girls and the provision of clean cooking fuel) , and guarantee universal banking are transformative for India’s women. This is because the burdens of inadequate service provision disproportionately fall on women. Women are more likely to shoulder daily household tasks such as gathering water for everyday use, or caring for sick children. Opposition parties have adopted this framing as well, to counter Modi’s claims.

How many more women are running as candidates compared to before?

The number of female candidates has gone up, but there is a long way to go.

In 1962, the first general election for which there is data on gender, a paltry 3.7 percent of candidates were women. This figure stayed roughly the same until 1991. In the 1990s, the proportion of women running for office began to rise, thanks to greater pressure on political parties to choose female candidates.

In 2014, just over 8 percent of candidates in parliamentary races were women. This is, at once, a big improvement and yet a tiny proportion in absolute terms.

According to data collected by Francesca Jensenius on Indian state elections, things are no better at the state level. Between 2011 and 2015, just 7.3 percent of candidates for state office were women.

What kinds of political office are Indian women running for?

Research has found that Indian women are more likely to run in two types of constituencies. First, female candidates are more common in constituencies that have relatively more men than women. This is startling, because one might expect women to run where they are better represented in the population. But this does not appear to be the case.

Second, women are more likely to run in constituencies reserved for historically disadvantaged groups. India has one of the most advanced systems of affirmative action found anywhere in the world. Roughly one-quarter of legislative seats at the state and national levels are reserved for two protected groups: Scheduled Castes, who are at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy, and Scheduled Tribes, who make up India’s native, indigenous population.

Both of these patterns are puzzling, and researchers have not been able to pin down the precise cause. One theory about the sex ratio finding is that women tend to run for office where they are poorly represented in the population because joining the electoral fray is the only way to make their voices heard. In places with more of a balance between men and women, the logic goes, perhaps strength in numbers means that women don’t necessarily need to be politicians to exercise influence.

The connection between reserved seats and women’s candidacy likely has to do with political opportunism. Political parties find it easier to push aside male incumbents in reserved seats in favor of women because men from these disadvantaged communities are viewed as more dispensable than other male incumbents. They need to fulfill their quota of female candidates somewhere, and see these seats as the least valuable and easiest option. Unfortunately, the hierarchies of the caste system are reproduced within political parties as well.

 How likely are women to win when they do run for office?

When they are nominated, Indian women punch above their weight. For instance, 8.1 percent of parliamentary candidates in 2014 were women, but 11.6 percent of eventual winners were women.

This does not necessarily mean that women are better politicians than men. It is possible that women are more likely to contest elections in party strongholds or run for less competitive seats.

The Indian government is considering a plan to increase women’s representation by providing quotas for female legislative members, like those the country has for other minorities. A proposed Women’s Reservation Bill, which has already been approved by India’s upper house of parliament but remains languishing in the lower house, would reserve one third of state and national legislative seats for women. While most parties claim to support the move, negotiations have stalled over whether there should be sub-quotas for various caste groups within this quota for women.

Has the #MeToo movement tangibly shaken up Indian politics, or has it been more of a trending topic on social media?

The #MeToo movement has taken a long time to catch fire in India. But in the past month, the #MeToo hashtag exploded on social media, as Indian women began talking about how they have suffered verbal and physical harassment in and out of the workplace.

These accusations have affected the worlds of film, media, business, and even politics. For example, former minister of state for external affairs M.J. Akbar was accused of wrongdoing by more than twenty-one women and was forced to resign over the allegations. Although Akbar still retains his parliamentary seat and has vowed to fight the charges, his resignation from his position as minister was a major victory for the movement. Many more skeletons may tumble out of politicians’ closets in the weeks and months to come.

Will having more female voters, candidates, and politicians really change deeply held Indian cultural attitudes toward women’s role in society?

There is some evidence that having more women in office does change gender perceptions.

For example, one study of affirmative action for women in Indian local politics has found that, while having female politicians does not necessarily mean voters are less likely to prefer male leaders, it does help reduce stereotypes about gender roles in public and private life.

Another study has found that having female politicians can be extremely beneficial for the aspirations and educational attainment of girls living under their jurisdiction. Other new research has found that female representatives are linked to higher growth, as well as less corruption and political opportunism.

 Are Indian women more likely to vote for female candidates?

No. There is little evidence to suggest that women in India are more likely to vote for female candidates. Parties led by prominent women also do not fare better than other parties among female voters, though this may be changing.

One study has found that providing additional security at polling booths brings out more women to vote—but the vote share for female candidates actually goes down as a result. One possible explanation is that many Indian women, like men, often have ingrained biases against female leadership.

 As Indian women vote more frequently, are they also joining the workforce in greater numbers?

 No, they are not. This is a central paradox of India’s political and economic future. Despite enjoying unprecedented social and political empowerment, Indian women are dropping out of the labor force at a rapid clip.

There is a well-known U-shaped statistical relationship between a given country’s per capita income and female participation in the labor force. In very poor and in very rich countries, women tend to participate in the workforce at higher rates.

But in the middle of the income distribution, women’s participation dips, as households reach a certain threshold of per capita income that encourages (or forces) women to stay at home.

Relative to countries at similar income levels, India’s female labor participation rate is a distinct outlier.

What’s more, the rate of Indian women working outside the home has gone from bad to worse. According to the International Labor Organization, India ranks 121 out of 131 countries in female labor force participation. Just over a quarter of women in the country are in the labor force today, compared to more than a third in 2005.