The Big, Fat, Gender-Biased Indian Election


Via: WSJ

You may have heard the numbers: 815 million voters; 543 lawmakers; 9 rounds of voting in the world’s largest democracy. You also know who’s projected to win: the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party led by divisive leader Narendra Modi, with the ruling Congress party set for its worst performance ever.

What you probably haven’t heard is how skewed India’s voter gender ratio is: 883 women voters per 1,000 male voters. Give or take. That’s an improvement from 715 per 1,000 male voters in the 1960s, according to data compiled by Shamika Ravi and Mudit Kapoor, professors at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. But it is lower even than the national gender ratio, embarrassing as it is, of 940 women per 1,000 men.

How has this come about? Not for want of legislation. Indian women were granted the right to vote and run in elections three years after India’s independence in 1947, the same year as men. Women have played a significant role in Indian politics down: from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to present-day chief ministers Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa Jayaram.

Still, India’s largely patriarchal tradition and cultural mores that require women to acquiesce to the opinion of men has meant that women have often not been a part of the political conversation, or showed up to vote on election day. That has also resulted in very few women lawmakers: of nearly 5,000 lawmakers across the country, less than 10 percent are women.

While the Indian government did implement a law in 2009 that mandated the reservation of at least half the seats at panchayati raj or local government institutions in villages and districts for women, it has dragged its feet on the Women’s Reservation Bill. The bill proposes to amend the Indian Constitution to reserve a third of all seats in the lower house and all state legislative assemblies for women, and has not been passed by the lower house after the upper house passed it in 2010.

India ranks 101 out of 136 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2013 global gender-gap index that examines economic participation, education, health and political empowerment. That is the lowest ranking among the BRIC economies, and is lower than Botswana and Bangladesh.

In this election, the year-old Aam Admi Party has the highest percentage of women candidates, about 15 percent, while the Congress has 12 percent and the BJP has 9 percent. That doesn’t bode well for the future of women’s representation in India.

Mind the Gap. Your Fortune Depends on it.

Just a few surprises in the latest Global Gender Gap Report, 2013 released by the World Economic Forum. For the fifth straight year, Iceland tops the list and is followed by its Nordic peers Finland, Norway and Sweden. The surprise is in No. 5: the Philippines. It’s the only Asian country to make the Top 10, and handily beats mightier rivals from Germany to the UK. The U.S. is a distant No. 23, in case you were wondering.

The Philippines has steadily climbed up the ranks: in 2010 it was ranked No. 9 on the index that measures the gap between women and men in terms of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The country is the only one in Asia and the Pacific that has fully closed the gender gap in both education and health, the report said.

Much of the improvement can be attributed directly to President Benigno Aquino, who has appointed women in top posts from chief justice to chief tax collector in a bid to end corruption. He has even taken on the Catholic Church to push through legislation to allow free access to contraception as he seeks to reduce poverty.


Today, Chief Justice Maria Sereno and the gun-toting head of the Bureau of Internal Revenue Kim Henares, are household names in a country whose most famous – ok, notorious – woman was known only by the extent of her shoe collection.

It’s not all good news, though. While the gender gap narrowed slightly across the globe in 2013, with 86 of 133 countries showing improvements, “change is definitely slow”, the report said. And as for why closing the gender gap is important: it is not only a matter of human rights and equity; it is also one of efficiency.

Little wonder then, that the Philippine economy is growing at more than 7 percent annually – second only to China in the region – and the country has been awarded its first investment-grade rankings by all three ratings agencies this year. Philippine women can take some credit for that.

When Constitutions Collude to Keep Women Out of Politics

Aung San Suu Kyi has just concluded a five-day visit to Singapore, her first to the city state. In her many meetings and speeches – all warm, witty and carefully delivered – she asked companies to invest responsibly in Myanmar, invited Burmese nationals in Singapore to participate in the country’s transition, and reiterated her demand that the constitution be changed, so she can run in elections to be held in 2015.

Myanmar’s constitution gives the military a lot of power in the political system and prohibits anyone with children who are foreign nationals from holding the posts of President or Vice-President. That is clearly aimed at Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British nationals.

That the military has no interest in giving up its cushy position is hardly surprising. That a woman is deliberately being sidelined from the political system in Asia is also, unfortunately, not surprising.

Women’s political participation in Eastern Asia, Southeastern Asia, South Asia and the Pacific Islands is well below the global average, according to research from Monash University. In all these regions, “there is strong resistance to women’s participation in public life evidenced in the formal statements of leaders and politicians and in the mentalities of the broader societies. Cultural, customary and religious discourses are frequently used to moralize that the ‘rightful’ place of women is NOT in politics,” the researchers wrote in a paper last year. Violence against women in politics or those seeking political office is very common in these countries, the report noted.

While gender quotas and reservations have significantly improved women’s political participation in some Asian countries, others are dragging their feet over such legislation. In India, a women’s reservation bill in India, which proposes to amend the constitution to reserve 33 per cent of all seats in the lower house of Parliament and in all state legislative assemblies for women, has languished for more than three years in the lower house. Women’s political participation in India is 11 percent.

Elsewhere, women do slightly better. In China, where Mao famously said ‘women hold up half the sky’, their political participation is about a fifth of the total, whereas in South Korea it’s 16 percent. The Philippines – where President Aquino, whose mother was once President, and who has recently appointed women to key posts including Chief Justice and Tax Collector – the participation rate is nearly a fourth, while in Thailand, where Yingluck Shinawatra is Prime Minister, albeit a mere puppet of her brother, the rate is 15 percent. Myanmar – and this should come as no surprise to Daw Suu – has the lowest score of all Asian countries measured, of less than 2 percent.

Investors rushing in to cash in on the gold rush that is Myanmar would do well to remember that statistic alongside the numbers on Myanmar’s gas reserves and its potential for mobile phone users and credit-card holders.

Dig my daughters? Vote for me

It’s not unusual for politicians to parade their families before voters to drive home the point that if they have managed to raise a family with few calamities, surely they can be entrusted with the task of running a country – or a constituency.

But Tony Abbott, leader of Australia’s Liberal-National coalition and the country’s freshly-elected prime minister takes the biscuit.

In a video message that lead candidates were required to send to participants in the Big Brother house (I know, but let’s focus on the matter at hand for now), Abbott appeared flanked by two of his daughters and proceeded to say: “If you want to know who to vote for, I’m the guy with the not bad looking daughters.” To the credit of the contestants, even they appeared taken aback.

It wasn’t the only sexist remark Abbott has made. During his campaign, he also made reference to the housewives of Australia doing the ironing and described virginity as “the greatest gift” a woman could give someone. There’s also, of course, the infamous “breast” menu for a party fundraiser that set new standards in sexism Down Under.

But of course, Mr. Abbott’s biggest claim to fame is being the subject of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s completely inspired — and totally unscripted — diatribe in parliament, in which she described him as the very definition of misogyny in modern Australia. If you haven’t seen that video in full, I urge you to do so. It’s worth all 15 minutes of your time.

Sadly, nothing’s changed since that speech. Going by the campaign and the repeated, vicious attacks on Gillard — not just from politicians but even radio personalities — it would seem that that brand of misogyny is not going anywhere in Australia. Is it any wonder then that so few women take the plunge into politics.