Beyond Quotas

Article Date

27 March 2013

Article Author

Ravi Verma

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

There is growing global momentum to foster women’s participation and leadership in the political arena, and specifically within local governance structures. India has been at the top of this curve as compared to many countries around the world: Twenty years ago, decentralized governance in India – which ensured that women hold at least one-third of seats in local governing bodies known as Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) – was established with the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution. But have these quotas really enabled PRIs to successfully address concerns faced by ordinary women in India over the past two decades?  

While we unequivocally support mandatory quotas for women’s political participation, sadly, we found that the answer is ‘no’. 
A recent study on the subject published by UN Women and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), whose findings are based on interviews with close to 3,000 men and women who serve on the PRIs in the states of Rajasthan, Karnataka and Odisha, make that abundantly clear. 
What we found was enlightening, if not altogether surprising.  Our study, “Opportunities and Challenges of Women’s Political Participation in India: A Synthesis of Research Findings from Select Districts in India,” reveals that ensuring women’s political representation through affirmative action is an important step in democratizing and stimulating local governance. However, the quota system does not automatically translate into effective governance, nor does it mean that issues of concern to community women will automatically be addressed. If real progress is to be made in responding to half of society’s needs, deep-seated cultural norms around gender roles must also be addressed.  
ICRW researchers found, for example, that elected female representatives who desire to run for another term are more likely to do so if they have a supportive husband who is helping with household duties. Among women who do not run for office again, we found that the number one reason for withdrawing from public life was the time burden of home and child care. And although we observed a range of attitudes among both women and men as to what role women can and should play in leadership, it was clear that PRIs are not considered to be spaces where gender issues, such as domestic violence, can be raised.
The findings from the ICRW study – which is part of UN Women’s program, Promoting Women’s Political Leadership and Governance in India and South Asia – inform key conclusions. Gender quotas are an important tool for moving us toward our goal of gender-responsive governance, in so far as the mere presence of women can transform patriarchal frameworks. Yet we find that the simple adage of “add women and stir” is insufficient on its own—women cannot be solely expected to carry the burden of transforming the governing process into a gender responsive ideal. Additional work needs to be done—at the policy and at the individual level—to transform these spaces into truly democratic and gender-equitable realms.  
These findings come at an auspicious time, as we jump from one generation of women to another since the 73rd amendment was added to the Indian Constitution in 1992. The evidence it provides is exactly what is needed to inform new strategies and policies with the power to bring about a future where girls will not need a quota system to achieve parity in their local, state and national governing bodies.  It is a future well within our reach.
Ravi Verma, Regional Director, ICRW