Female Political Empowerment in India: Hope at last?

Women’s rights continue to be a pressing issue across the world. Claire Dale looks at India and considers how grassroots movements, policy changes and quotas for women’s political representation can work together to create a more egalitarian society. 

Women in India remain second-class citizens. Across India, on average, 92 women are raped every day, proof that despite a toughening of the law, violence against women is still rampant in India.

In addition to direct and physical violence, women still suffer disproportionately from a severe lack of access to sanitation and education. Legislation that does exist to tackle issues such as sex selection and female infanticide is limited and too often ineffectual. This raises questions about the relationship between legislation and social change as well as how to best address gender inequality and empowerment.

The inadequacy of ‘top-down’ legislation

© World Bank Photo/Creative Commons License

© World Bank Photo/Creative Commons License

Laws such as the Anti Rape Bill of 2013 highlight a willingness on part of the government to effect change as well as growing popular demand for a toughening of the law regarding crimes against women. However, such laws tend to remain largely symbolic due to their focusing on the symptoms (here, rape) rather than on the underlying causes (societal attitudes towards women and rampant patriarchy).

By focusing on the symptoms, these laws have limited reach. The recent case of a female customer being raped by her Uber driver is just one of countless tragic examples of the Anti Rape Bill’s failure to deter violence against women.  This failure of legislation that seeks to impose change from the top is indicative of the tension between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches to the tackling of social issues (including gender inequality), and to international development in general. It seems that change imposed from the top often fails to succeed if not matched with desire for transformation from below.

For Saba Ghori, a senior South Asia women’s issues adviser at the U.S. State Department, there is a pressing need to pay attention to the local level, where action for India’s women is changing gender norms.

‘Bottom up’ legislation and grassroots movement: the way forward?

Legislation that focuses on giving women a political voice seems to be affecting change at the local level, both in terms of men’s perceptions towards women and in terms of women’s appreciation of their own capabilities, rights and possibilities. The 73rd Amendment to the Constitution of India does precisely that.

The amendment devolves certain powers from the central government to governing assemblies and requires that a third of all seats, at all three levels of governance (District, Block and Village), be reserved for elected women as well as one third of all of the ‘chief of assembly’ seats at each level. This provides women with the possibility to express themselves, to effect change and to represent their women constituents.

Despite some criticisms that women put in assembly seats are merely stand-ins for their husbands, extensive research has found that the policy has significant and positive impacts on women’s empowerment. For instance, women in local assemblies tend to shape the agenda to better reflect the needs of their female constituents as well as gear public goods provision towards women’s needs. Women constituents are more likely to come and express their concerns and needs to a more gender-equal assembly than in the previously male-dominated political forum.

© Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security/Creative Commons License

© Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security/Creative Commons License

The benefits of having women in law-making roles extends outside of the assembly too. Having a woman in power tends to boost girls’ aspirations as well as positively shift their parents’ attitudes towards female education. Similarly, it was found that an increase in female representation in local assemblies substantially increased the amount of reported crimes against women (it was found that this was not due to an increase in crime), suggesting that women are inspired to speak up when they have an example of a woman in power.

The 73rd Amendment’s provision for mandated female political representation is unlikely to change deeply entrenched social attitudes and imbalances on its own. Indeed, having been implemented for over 20 years in most states, its impact has largely depended on the specifics of each state. Attitudes towards women in India are so intimately intertwined with caste, religion, ethnicity that it is hard to pinpoint exactly how to move towards gender equality. Movements, initiatives and policies that focus on a bottom up approach are particularly important in an immensely diverse country like India. No amount of top down policies can replace initiatives that foster local, incremental change. Lifting the burden that religion, caste and social stigma represent for women’s status in India can only be done from the bottom up. This is why self-help groups, grassroots NGOs and education initiatives are so crucial. For instance, the heart-warming initiative of a Bihari village to plant 10 or more trees for every girl’s birth is illustrative of how ‘bottom-up’ approaches can affect attitudes towards women.

This amendment has made for some positive change at the local level, which emphasises the importance of locally oriented policies and actions in triggering substantial and long lasting change. Hand in hand with local NGOs, self-help groups and other empowering initiatives that strive to alter the patriarchal mindset of Indian society, mandated female political representation might pave the way towards a new avenue for women’s empowerment.



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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