Prof. V.P. Gupta,Director, Rau’s IAS Study Circle, New Delhi – Jaipur – Bengaluru

This article caters to the Social section of General
Studies – Paper I & II and for Essay Paper in
the UPSC Main Examination

“Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.”

— Kofi Annan

The participation of women and men in formal and informal decision-making structures varies greatly between countries, but is generally in favour of men. Institutional as well as cultural, economic and societal factors limit women’s opportunities and abilities to participate in decision-making. Women’s low political representation is therefore often used as an indicator of gender inequality. Specifically, the ‘proportion of seats held by women in national parliament’ was chosen as one of three indicators to measure progress on Millennium Development Goals (MDG) on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Put simply, governance refers to decision-making by a range of interested people (or ‘stakeholders’) including those in formal positions of power and ‘ordinary’ citizens. These decisions have a huge impact on the ways in which women and men lead their lives, on the rules they are expected to abide by, and on the structures that determine where and how they work and live. They also shape how public resources are allocated and whether services take account of both women’s and men’s needs and interests.

Yet women are often excluded from decision-making, from the household to the highest levels of government and beyond to the global level. Governance processes—emphasising accountability, transparency, responsiveness and inclusiveness—should be a means to social transformation. But they are failing to deliver. Women are under-represented not only in the political sphere but also in decision-making within the private sector, at the village level and in civil society. At the local level, men usually dominate positions of power, including as religious and traditional leaders, local politicians and village elders.

Women’s representation and leadership tend to be confined to areas that are traditionally ‘feminine’ such as social welfare. Women’s representation in informal decision-making processes is often more common than their representation in formal positions and structures, but it tends to be hidden and therefore not as highly valued as it should be. In order to deepen democracy at the local, national and international level, it is important to ensure that women and men are able to participate on equal terms in both formal and informal decision-making structures.

Poor levels of participation and representation in decision-making bodies is exacerbated, for both men and women, by intersecting discriminations relating to ethnic group, socioeconomic status, religion, caste, and disability.

Gender differences in formal representation can be attributed in large part to both institutional and societal constraints. The latter encompasses the social norms that make it more difficult for women to leave their traditionally domestic roles for more public roles outside of the home. Institutional constraints include barriers such as political systems that operate through rigid schedules that do not take into consideration women’s domestic responsibilities, and the type of electoral quotas used (if any).

There has been considerable international emphasis on ensuring a more equitable number of women and men in democratic institutions, through the introduction of quotas for women in many countries. There is increased acknowledgement, however, that quotas are not enough to ensure that women’s concerns are heard. Two reasons can be found for this. First, despite increased participation, women are still primarily a minority within patriarchal political systems, which means that it continues to be difficult for them to have their voices heard. Second, women politicians cannot be assumed to prioritise or even identify with the needs of other women. Class, race, caste, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and disabilities are some of the many differences that can divide women.

Nonetheless, quotas can have an impact on society’s perceptions of women, with increasing acceptance of women as leaders reported in some instances. There is growing recognition that combining quotas with skills development in leadership and capacity building can have a stronger impact and strengthen the opportunities for women’s voice.

Barriers to women’s election

Institutional, socioeconomic and cultural barriers limit women’s effective participation in democratic elections. Politics is often viewed, by both men and women, as a male domain where women will struggle to make a contribution. In addition, party politics tends to be dominated by men, making it more difficult for women to get on party lists for election. Women’s representation and leadership therefore tend to be more at the grassroots level and in social welfare positions.

Even where women have been able to secure office, they continue to face additional challenges compared to their male counterparts. These include both male and female opposition, inexperience of the political domain and low confidence. In addition, many women politicians find that it can be difficult to balance their public responsibilities with their domestic roles. In order to get elected, many female candidates choose to downplay the fact that they are concerned with ‘women’s issues’, for fear this may alienate male voters. It has been argued that, in order to reverse this negative cycle, there must be a significant number of women in positions of power before these issues will feature on the agenda.

In some cases, particularly in fragile contexts, women may face intimidation or threats in running for office. This is primarily due to the fact that men or local customary authorities may feel that this threatens the traditional male hierarchy or patriarchal order.

Approaches for increasing women’s democratic participation

A number of strategies have been popular among governments and donors to try to encourage more women into politics. These include training women for political candidacy, providing funding or capacity building on fundraising for women candidates, and including women as election monitors. Mobilising female voters is also considered important to get women elected into office and to deepen democracy. Gendered civic awareness and separate polling booths for women are some of the strategies that have been adopted.

In our country, as per provisions contained in Article 243 D of the Constitution,  of the Seats of Panchayati Raj Institutions and  offices of the Chairperson at all level of Panchayati Raj Institutions covered by Part IX of the Constitution are reserved for women. Further, the Government has approved the proposal for enhancing reservation of women in Panchayats from the present one-third to 50%. Accordingly, a bill for amendment of the Constitution of India had been introduced in the Parliament. But, bill for reserving 33% of seats in Parliament and State Assemblies is still pending for years.

Quota systems have been used in a number of countries to advance the representation of women. These have taken various forms, including sandwiching of party lists and reserved seats. While this has increased the number of women in political positions, they remain a minority in most countries.

Leadership and participation

Women are under-represented in decision-making, not only in the political sphere, but also within the private sector, at the village level and in civil society organisations. This low participation is due to social norms which dictate their domestic roles and often leave them with limited time. Leadership and participation, especially in the political sphere, is often viewed as an area where men have superior knowledge. Traditional and religious leadership positions tend to be dominated by men. This is particularly problematic as these leaders are sometimes called upon by states to adjudicate disputes, especially in transitional justice situations, and can thus limit women’s access to justice if they adhere to gender inequitable social norms. Women’s leadership positions tend to be confined to organisations set up by and for women.

Women often have informal roles of influence, recognition and power within the community – as mothers, teachers, volunteers, entrepreneurs, as well as community leaders. Women’s informal leadership often has a focus on community service, but these leadership skills can be harnessed and formalised to give women political and formal decision-making power.

Civil society participation

Civil society is often forgotten as a gendered domain. This can be partly attributed to failure to incorporate the household as a unit of analysis, and consequently forgetting to acknowledge the domestic responsibilities of women which impact on their time and energy to engage outside of the household. To understand participation in civil society it is important to look beyond a simple gender analysis and to incorporate an analysis of intersecting inequalities. Understanding which women and men are participating might reveal certain groups of men as being able to participate less than other groups of women. Actions can then be taken to particularly consult these hard-to-reach groups for programme interventions.

Women’s groups/organisations

Much of women’s activism has been channelled through women’s organisations, often mobilised around issues of particular concern to women. Women’s organisations which work against patriarchal domination are often termed women’s rights organisations. Women’s groups often struggle to access funding and their scope for action is therefore often limited. The competition for scarce resources is also often a barrier to women’s groups working cooperatively together.

Gender-responsive budgeting is a right way forward

Interest in gender-responsive budgeting grew in the 1990s, alongside a more general interest in budget work within civil society. It is driven by the premise that government policies, expenditure and revenue have different outcomes for women and men, girls and boys (and different groups of women and men, girls and boys). Such groups are distinct and have different needs and interests. Gender-responsive budget initiatives provide for assessment of the differing outcomes for different groups. The aim is not to establish separate budgets to address gender concerns, but to ensure that government budgets are allocated in an equitable way that satisfies the most pressing needs of individuals and groups.

Gender-responsive budgeting is not an isolated event, but an important aspect of gender mainstreaming and more effective public financial management. It focuses not only on the content of budgets, but also on the underlying policy process, in particular inclusiveness, transparency and accountability. Participatory budgeting initiatives have become a relevant aid instrument for gender-responsive budgeting and for the more general participation of civil society in budgetary processes.

Although this has been incorporated in various schemes and programmes of Government of India yet it requires a significant shift in thinking and practice in the way that budgets are designed and implemented. It involves ambitious initiatives such as opening up the budget process to a wider group of stakeholders, prioritising equality, and acknowledging the care economy.

Involvement of non-state actors

The involvement of actors from outside the government executive in gender-responsive budgeting is important in supporting such work and in sustaining momentum for fiscal policy transformation and implementation. Gender budget work carried out within Parliament and civil society can include research and efforts to influence the allocations of government money. This contributes to broader objectives of transparency, accountability and civic participation. Collaboration between civil society and Parliament can also be effective in promoting support for and implementation of gender-responsive budgeting initiatives. Further, gender-responsive budgeting can be adopted not only by government, but also by nongovernmental organisations, foundations, and other private sector organisations.

In a nutshell, governance from gender empowerment perspective will only succeed when there is increase in the number of women in public office; enhancing women’s leadership by helping to reform electoral processes, change political parties, and strengthen parliaments, judiciaries and the civil service; strengthening the ability of women’s organisations to advocate and implement projects that promote women’s rights; promoting judicial reforms to ensure equal legal protection to poor women and men; ensure that essential public services like health and education benefit poor women, men, girls and boys equitably; and reducing gender-based violence.

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