This article was written by Nirmala George for the Associated Press, 11 April 2014
SARAI, India (AP) — Trudging home after a long day harvesting wheat, Veena Devi has little time for the political workers swarming her northern Indian village seeking votes for their candidates.
“They come to us each time promising piped water, public toilets and factory jobs. But these political leaders will disappear after they win,” said the gray-haired Devi, sitting outside her thatched-roof hut in Sarai, a village just outside the Hindu holy city of Varanasi.
Women form more than 49 percent of India’s 814 million voters, but many of them, especially in rural India, feel their concerns are not taken seriously by political parties, and that they take a back seat to men in everything from health care to education to legal protection.
Nearly seven decades after independence from Britain in 1947, India has had many formidable female leaders. The best known, Indira Gandhi, was prime minister for 15 years. The current leader of the ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, is the widow of Indira’s son, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
India has had a woman president, a woman speaker of Parliament and women leaders of political parties. Two of India’s biggest states have women chief ministers.
But few Indian women feel these leaders have served them well. And women leaders have rarely made women’s issues a priority.
Women in West Bengal were particularly incensed last year when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the state’s top elected leader, tried to play down a rash of rapes in the state and said her administration was unable to speed up trials of rape cases that have been pending in courts, sometimes for decades.
Amendments to India’s constitution that would reserve for women a third of all seats in Parliament and state assemblies have been hanging for more than a decade.
“Most women leaders are careful not to identify themselves with women’s causes. They fear they will be marginalized in their own parties,” said Suniti Kumar, a shop manager from Varanasi. “In that, they are not so different from the men.”
For millions of Indian women, the national elections that take place every five years are merely a minor distraction in their quietly desperate lives.
Every day Devi, a 42-year-old widow, wakes well before dawn to accompany her teenage daughter to the nearby field they use as a toilet. They collect buckets of drinking water before heading to work in the landlord’s fields. On days when there is no farm work available, she toils at a nearby brick kiln. The money Devi earns, and the pittance her daughter gets doing odd jobs, is just enough to feed her and her three children.
While India has a growing middle class, tens of millions of women still struggle with illiteracy, poverty and little social status. For these women, political choices are often still made by their husbands or male community leaders.
Chaya Kumari, a field worker with a nongovernmental organization in Varanasi, makes her own political choices, and knows she is in the minority.
“My husband wants me to vote for his candidate. I refused and there is little he can do about it,” she said, her voice filled with determination.
Kumari said she can defy her husband because she holds a steady job and is not financially dependent on him.
For most Indian women, safety remains their biggest concern.
Outrage seized India more than a year ago when a young woman was gang-raped on a moving New Delhi bus and later died of her injuries, becoming a symbol of the dangers that millions of women face every time they leave their homes.
An outpouring of protests pushed the government, and political leaders of all hues, to join the cause. Since then, voyeurism, stalking and the trafficking of women have been made criminal offenses, courts dealing with sex crimes have become faster and men who are repeatedly convicted of rape have become eligible for the death penalty.
Political parties also promised to find ways to empower women — though have done very little to follow through. Except for the high-profile female leaders, most parties field few women candidates. The last general election saw 59 women, or a little over 10 percent, elected to the lower house of Parliament, out of 543 members. India ranks 99th in the world in terms of female representation among legislators.
Few women politicians have the money they need to fund campaigns, making them dependent on parties for financial help. Fewer still get that help.
“The biggest hurdle women in politics face is from within the political parties to which they belong,” said Sehba Farooqui, a New Delhi-based political activist.
Major parties are careful to include women in their platforms, though the communists are the only one that favors setting aside one-third of legislative seats for women.
The Congress party says it will “provide women equal access to social, economic and political opportunities,” and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party says it will “transform the quality of life of women in rural India.” But the most serious attempts to reach women voters are done with free saris and pressure cookers.
“Women see through these ploys. They want politicians to deal with their real problems. They want jobs … if not for themselves, then for their children,” Kumari said.
In Sarai, Devi’s woes stem from the abject poverty that grips the region, in Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state. Decades of poor governance have left literacy levels low, health care abysmal and other public services lacking.
Devi cooks over a small fire she makes with sticks, and gets water from a hand pump shared by nine families. Rusted pipes reaching from an irrigation canal some distance away end abruptly near the village, evidence of failed promises made during a 2009 election.
“When politicians want our vote, they say: ‘Sister, we will get you water pipelines, we will get you higher wages,'” said Devi.
“They win, and then they forget their sisters.”