In a State where 53 per cent of women think that it is justifiable for a man to beat his wife, how much political agency does a woman have in Bihar?
The Constitution confers equal voting rights to all its citizens irrespective of gender with the intention to make them equal and independent participants in public affairs and politics. But do these legally binding political rights really matter when customs and traditions, and socio-economic context continue to be regressive?
In the context of Bihar, the consistent rise in the turnout of female voters in the State elections since 2015 has come into sharp focus with the State going to elections from today. Reports suggest that women may in fact outnumber men in absolute terms this year. While the rising numbers of female voters reflects a promising trend, it may be valuable to explore whether their votes really count.
Does greater female voter turnout indicate a democratic selection of candidates by women independently making political choices? Alternatively, do women simply mirror and reinforce the political choices of the male members of the household? The former would indicate political empowerment of people and a strengthening of participatory democracy. In contrast, the latter would merely imply that women mimic the patriarchial political choices. Arithmetically this would simply lead to a doubling of the votes cast by the male voters with no visible shifts in the political landscape.
For more than a century, this theory has been debated by political scientists, theorists and strategists. with no conclusive answer in sight. But it may be worthwhile to explore the social, economic and cultural contexts and factors at play.
In the case of Bihar there is a culture of early marriage. Data show that 43 per cent and 35 per cent of the women get married before attaining the age of 18 and 21, respectively. So an average female voter in Bihar is married. Consequently, the male counterparts who may potentially influence a woman’s political choices are the husband, brother(s)-in-law, son(s) and the father-in-law.
Given the pervasiveness of early marriage, the State has the country’s highest total fertility rate at 3.41. Coupled with that, the contraceptive prevalence is less than a quarter with strong male child preference. Together, these factors show that reproductive agency of women in Bihar is low.
On the education front, only slightly more than 22 per cent of women have 10 or more years of schooling on average. So are women are knowledgeable enough to assess the political choices before them?.
Add to that the gender unequal household dynamics that limit women’s agency regarding decision-making, access to resources as well as physical mobility. Almost two-thirds of the women in Bihar experience some form of physical or sexual violence. As a result some amount of voter intimidation is to be expected.
But in many cases, a more subtle male influence in decisions governing almost every aspect of women’s lives is more likely. As high as 25 per cent of women have stated that they do not participate at all in decisions regarding household purchases, own healthcare and making visits to relatives and friends.
Plausibly, these gender inequalities may loom over women’s preferences and choices. They may choose to limit their decision-making to the confines of their household, while leaving decisions about State and national politics to their male counterparts.
Research shows that financial empowerment can lead to a break from traditional and orthodox family structures. In Bihar, on average, women having worked for remuneration (cash) is low at 13 per cent in 2015-16, which is a 4 percentage point decline from 17 per cent in 2005-06. Only 33 per cent of the women said that they had some cash that they could use independently.
Grip of tradition
Firstly, this suggests that traditional family structures in Bihar continue to remain rigid and discriminatory. Second, nearly 90 per cent of the women in Bihar are financially dependent on the male members. Accordingly, it may be hypothesised that female voter decisions are swayed by their husbands with whom these women’s financial well-being is critically linked.
Given the specific and visibly unfavourable socio-cultural and economic contexts that the women of Bihar face, the most critical question then boils down to what the women want.
Do they want to make these political choices independently based on their own beliefs and are unable to do so? Or is their battle for other forms of empowerment more pressing than the right to vote? And does this right (to vote) seem more like an imposition? Or do women exercise their right to vote disregarding male opinions and political inclinations by assuming a greater autonomy in the ballot box?
At a macro level, there is a need to reconsider the ways for measuring political empowerment by incorporating ‘autonomy’ as a critical factor impacting voter choices. And, more crucially, we need to consider whether it is possible to ensure meaningful political empowerment along with socio-economic uplift of women.
The author, a researcher at Oxford Policy Management, was a social policy analyst with the PM’s Economic Advisory Council. Views expressed are personal