As the ‘world’s biggest democracy’ hits the polls, where do women stand?

Voting in India's immense five-week long 2014 general election (the 16th Lok Sabha) started on Monday 7th April. Voting will take place across 35 states until 12th May.

With a system similar to Westminster, the parliament is divided into 543 constituencies. According to the Economist, the parliament represents 815 million people of voting age – the populations of America and the EU combined.

Given the infrastructure in India, an election of this scale cannot possibly be carried out in one day. Voting will take place in nine phases, to allow election authorities to tackle the 930,000 polling stations.  As with any election, all the major parties have made big promises on the key issues that they think concern their voters. As an Indian girl living and working in London, but with family in India, what I am most interested in is what each party has to offer in terms of improving the safety of women and ultimately, their rights as a whole.

The brutal Delhi gang rape case last year further highlighted the place that women often occupy in Indian society. As I follow such incidents, not only do they disgust me, but they continuously make me wonder how far the political parties have gone and will go to consider gender inequality, women’s safety and freedom in India. Now that we are finally amidst the 2014 general elections, how are they fighting for the women’s vote?

As expected, to take advantage of the political spotlight, social activists and civil society leaders have rallied together and produced their own ‘womanifesto’, which urges candidates to focus on issues of crimes against women.

Women’s safety has been a prominent issue in India since the vicious rape and murder of a woman on a bus in Delhi in 2012. Since then the Government has increased penalties for rape and has put more police on the streets. But sexual violence continues. The number of reported rape cases in Delhi almost doubled in 2013.

So, what are the three main political parties – the ruling Congress Party, the opposition ‘front-runner’ Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the new Aam Aadmi (common man) Party (AAP) – promising India’s female voters?

All three parties say in their manifestoes that they are committed to:
• Passing the Women’s Reservation Bill in parliament. The bill allows for one third of seats in national and state assemblies to be reserved for women.
• Strictly implementing laws related to women, and making police stations more women-friendly by increasing the number of female staff.
• Creating more fast-track courts to deal with a rising number of cases of crimes against women. The BJP also said it would also seek to increase the number of women in the judiciary.
In BJP’s election manifesto, it promises to introduce self-defence classes for girls, put lighting on all public buses and create a women’s “security force”. It says it will dispense a fund which was established, but not used, by the Congress-led government, for the rehabilitation of rape victims. It also says it would create an acid attack-victim welfare fund, to cover medical costs related to reconstructive surgeries of victims.

The AAP says it will establish a national response protocol to deal with crimes against women which will ensure that decisions on recruitment and promotion of police and prosecutors will include their performance in relation to gender. Both the AAP and the Congress Party have pledged to set up 24-hour crisis centres to provide medical, legal and psychological support to rape and domestic violence victims.

Do the measures go far enough?

Women’s groups don’t think so and assert that politicians who talk about and focus on women’s safety are missing the point entirely. What they say we need is more respect and empowerment to prevent attacks on women in the first place. They propose that investing in education and employment opportunities would go a lot further towards prevention and creating a culture of respect.

Election time is the moment of truth. It is when voters have the greatest power to demand change.

On 12th May we will find out who will be appointed the next Prime Minister, but only time will tell whether whatever the party sticks to its manifesto – and hopefully goes that step further, which we need to prevent the past repeating itself.

As Sunita Choudhary, Delhi’s first female rickshaw driver and Indian parliamentary candidate put it: “If women are treated respectfully, then that in turn would mean respect for our country.”

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