The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source. ~Lucretia Mott
Gender discrimination is a devastating reality in developing countries. Women are oppressed at home, at shops, and at the workplace. India is no exception. Women are dependent on family and kinship to access social goods and economic opportunities. The Government of India has passed several laws to protect women’s constitutional rights including the Hindu Succession Act (1956) and the Dowry Prohibition Act (1961). In addition, the government has provided several welfare measures to empower women that include the Indira Mahila Yojana (1995), the DWACRA Plan (1997) and Balika Samriddhi Yojana (1997). Monitoring the implementation and effectiveness of these programs at the national level is not an easy task. In such a scenario, the process of decentralisation would be a good solution for women particularly when they are linked to democratisation. Local institutions should have a better understanding of the problems of women at the village level compared to institutions at the central level. Thus, decentralisation has the potential to address the interests of women.
The Indian government has introduced a quota for women within the local government system, ideally to break down the traditional and cultural inequities working as barriers against women. The conjecture is the following: elected women leaders may have immense potential to encourage the women of the village to raise their voices and demand their rights in a direct or indirect manner. They may approach village women actively as a friend/neighbour or village women may be inspired by the boldness of the woman leader. This would empower local women. Though it is difficult to quantify empowerment, prioritising women issues and voicing them through political participation are important indicators of empowerment.
In 1992, the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments were enacted, leading the way for democratic grassroots governance. Thirty-three per cent of the seats at the local government level are reserved for women. It is important to note that the process of allocating reserved constituencies is random. After the women quota system was introduced in village councils (panchayats), approximately one million women have joined the elected local government bodies. However, the effective participation of women in local governance is ambiguous. It is argued that elected women may be proxies for their husbands, families or male leaders of political parties. They may get hardly any opportunity to work due to their lack of political experience and traditional social barriers. On the contrary, empirical studies have found that political participation among women has improved through their active participation in ‘gram-Sabha’ meetings. A study by Deininger, Jin and Nagarajan has pointed to increased willingness to contribute to the provision of local public goods in reserved villages. The question now is whether “women issues” receive priority in the ‘reserved’ villages.
Political reservation may have a stronger impact on women-centric issues, especially on the use of birth control measures as well as the health of girl children. In a ‘discriminating’ society, the onus of contraceptive use often falls on the women of the family. For example, the proportion of male contraceptive use in developing countries is significantly lower than the proportion of female contraceptive use. Approximately 70% of the contraceptive couples depend on female methods in poor countries. The ratio of female to male sterilization was 3 to 1 in China and 4 to 1 in Latin America (UN Report 2004, World Population Prospects). The use of contraceptives or non-use of any measure takes a huge toll on women’s health. High levels of fertility cause many of the health problems women face. Repeated termination of unwanted pregnancies through abortions also has a negative impact on her health. Does the pattern of use of contraception change in the ‘reserved’ villages?
Data collected by the National Council of Applied Economic Research in the Rural Economic and Demographic Survey suggests that the mode of contraceptive use changed towards male methods over time and varied across reserved vs. unreserved villages. The proportion of males using condoms is higher by 7 points in ‘reserved’ villages compared to ‘unreserved’ ones. In contrast, the proportion of women going for sterilisation is 53% in the ‘unreserved’ villages while it is 44% in the reserved villages. There is, therefore, a more equitable distribution of males and females in the adoption of contraceptive use when the village Panchayat leadership is ‘reserved’ for women.
Trends over time suggest that the use of contraceptives has increased after political reservation. However, there is a sharp decline in the use of women-centric methods of birth control. The pattern is not uniform across different ‘disadvantaged’ groups. For instance, women belonging to scheduled caste households increasingly share the burden of using contraceptives relative to women from other castes.
To summarise, there is enough empirical evidence to suggest that political reservation for women has a positive impact on diversification of fertility control choices. The process of change, however, may be slow as changes in any behaviuoral pattern are usually slow.
Dr. Sohini Paul is a Fellow at NCAER, New Delhi.