One may call the rape and murder of a Dalit law student in Kerala an isolated incident that is more about general security than the state of women in the southern state, but elections are when all claims of empowerment among women in the state stand exposed.
Close to 10 lakh more women than men will cast their votes on 16 May to elect a fresh set of members to the state Legislative Assembly. The state also has over 14,000 more women voters this year, as per Election Commission data. Yet only 26 more women are contesting the polls this year than in 2011. This, in a state which has 1,085 women for every 1,000 men.
Kerala has long been the land where matriarchy was followed among its influential communities and where women enjoyed property rights, and at times, the major share of it. Education among women has been a staple for nearly a century and at least 70 percent of them now have access to quality higher education. In all other parameters like health and employment too, the women in the state are way ahead.
A University of Berkeley study on women in politics in India says 23 percent women feel their vote counts in making a difference as against 39 percent of men who feel the same. But when it comes to representation of women in legislative assemblies across the country, the percentage figure is just in single digits. And Kerala’s story is no different.
Last Assembly election, there were just 83 women among the 971 candidates. Of this, 63 lost the poll battle. This time, 109 of the 1,203 candidates are women. Thiruvananthapuram has the highest number of women contestants (14 of the total 135) and Kasaragod, the lowest (1 of the 46). Thirty four of the women are fielded by the major fronts - the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), the Left Democratic Front (LDF), and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.
Things have sure improved this year, with the LDF coming up with a decision to field at least one woman candidate from each district. And, barring Kasaragod and Kottayam, the Left has fielded at least one woman candidate in all the districts.
Yet when one considers the larger picture in terms of representation, Kerala cuts a poor figure. Last Assembly had just seven women in the 140-strong house. And since the 1950s, the number of women legislators has not crossed 13.
The recent spurt in cases of violence against women and children in the state have brought forth the gender question with fresh vigour. Are women represented enough in the Assembly here? Are they part of the decision-making bodies? Why are women shunning politics when their vote share is so huge?
“The gender question was never considered till about two decades ago. Globalisation brought forth a fresh set of challenges and it is frankly then that the Left parties began considering the issue. The gender question was taken up during the People’s Planning movement of the Left government. Now, they are beginning to talk of it with greater focus. The decision to field more candidates this year is part of this move,” says journalist R Parvathy Devi.
While the Left is a tad better in considering women for prime roles, the other parties still are reluctant to wake up to accepting a woman leader. “The poll scene in the past has seen women of great promise contesting and even giving a tough fight without any back up of reservations. But where are they now? Women members of even mainstream parties in the state often complain about not being able to speak their mind or come out in open against issues. This time too, so many such women leaders have been denied a chance to contest,” says a woman political on condition of anonymity.
T N Seema, CPM’s candidate in one of the key constituencies and AIDWA state president, feels the whole issue of less participation of women in politics and decision-making reflects the attitude of the society that has tilted towards patriarchy in the last 50 years. “There are women in the activities of the political parties but when it comes to decision-making, they are not included. Even within the party, growth is something that isn’t very easy. Women are still considered as those inadequate in skills of governance. What the present leaders do not understand is that how to govern can be learnt only by actually governing,” she says.
Growth within the party requires tremendous support of the family and often this isn’t available, says Parvathy. “She has to be present for the grassroot work of the party. A family may not allow that here. A woman’s place is still said to be at home and even her education and employment prospects are decided on the basis of how beneficial they will be to the family.” The Left ideology has been able to touch most spheres of life here, but the family, even now, remains feudal.
Then there are also the insecurities involved, a reason why getting seats reserved for women to contest polls isn’t a cakewalk. “The 50 percent reservation for women in local body polls have sure been beneficial in helping more women enter local administration, but it has not gone down well with many,” says Aysha Potty, who had won the Kottarakkara Assembly seat with a huge margin of nearly 54 percent votes in 2011. Cases like Aysha Potty’s are isolated, as women are either fielded in seats where they are unlikely to win or, as widely seen in the local body polls, as a proxy to their male relatives.
“A woman who tries to find her foothold in public sphere often finds slander lavished on her to curb her growth. They give in to such pressures. What is needed is a bold approach and a strong mind,” says Saleena Prakkanam, chairperson of the Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM), who also spearheaded the Chengara land agitation.
According to her, a strict reservation policy alone can help in bringing more women to the forefront of politics. A study by Thrissur-based Jananeethi Institute and Nottingham Law School, UK, complements this view. It observes: “The main reason an increased number of women have come forward to contest local body polls is due to the enactment reserving 50 percent seats for women. Without this, they wouldn’t have entered politics.” Thirty three percent of the contestants of local body polls were first timers. Although 85 percent of the government officials refer to the inexperience of women representatives as a stumbling block, that the women show the willingness to learn is said to be their positive attribute. Institutes like the Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA) design courses and workshops to train such women.
But the attitude of the society, especially the government officials, to women representatives smacks of chauvinism, says Aysha Potty. “We are treated with indifference as though we are yet to learn the ropes of polity and decision making. I have faced this, but have stood up strongly against that attitude. Women should come out boldly, shunning the conventionally accepted norms that society reserves for Keralite women.”
PS Sreekala, director of Kerala Sthree Padana Kendram (Women’s Studies Centre), says a deep-rooted change has to effected to bring about a difference in the way society views women, only then can politics see more women coming forward to be leaders. “Programmes for women like the Kudumbasree have helped a lot to bring women to the forefront. Yet what is needed is a constructive effort, which starts right from changes in school syllabi,” she says.
Updated Date: May 09, 2016 11:48 AM