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Fighting More Than Just Elections

By Ekta Kumar
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Half of India is female. And yet, our representation in parliament is dismal, only 66 out of 545 elected members in the Lok Sabha, and there is not much hope of it dramatically improving in 2019. It is ironical considering that to ensure equal representation, our system follows seat allocation based on population, but clearly gender is not evenly represented - it is mostly men who lead us. Women need to be more involved, they need to speak louder, engage in civil society, contest elections, win some, lose some and be a part of the overall political process of the country. But of course it is not that easy. There is a long list of challenges, and the one they need struggle the hardest against, is a patriarchal attitude that refuses to fight fair.

Fighting More Than Just Elections

An insidious pamphlet circulated against AAP's East Delhi candidate Atishi's is a perfect example of why women hesitate to step into public life. She excelled in academics, is a Rhodes scholar, an activist, a teacher and had been, until recently, working with the government of Delhi to improve the educational system. You cannot deny her credentials, and yet the discussion before Delhi went to vote was entered around cheap comments about her personal life.

She is not the only one. Time and again we've seen the discourse fall to ridiculous levels. Azam Khan's (Samajwadi Party) 'underwear' remark against Jaya Prada, Smriti Irani's bindi, references to Priyanka Gandhi's beauty and Hema Malini's dancing skills to earn votes - are just some of the examples. Photographs have been morphed and names have been called. Jokes and memes about bengali actresses Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan flooded the internet after their nomination by the ruling Trinamool Congress for the polls. I'm not commenting on whether they are deserving candidates or not, but how often do you see a male candidate face similar malicious campaigns.

It is not just limited to political newbies and actresses. Mayawati, a political stalwart, who has been the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, one of India's most populous states, no less than four times, has over the years been called a variety of names, ridiculed, criticised and bullied. There was a time she had to lock herself in a room, with hordes of SP workers outside banging the door, trying to break in, while she waited for the police to rescue her. Jayalalitha and Mamta Banerjee - both have been physically assaulted. India has had prominent women leaders, but it is not easy for women both at the top and those struggling to make it there.

Sexist statements, insults and slander are the oldest tricks in the book to target women in positions of power, politicians, leaders and activists. These toxic comments have now found a way to multiply through our phones. Increasing internet access just makes it easier to drag women down. It is not limited to India, women around the world are victimised on social media. An Amenesty study revealed that 778 women politicians and journalists received 1.1 million abusive posts a year, that is literally one obnoxious message every 30 seconds. Imagine dealing with that. Very few would be strong enough to withstand that pressure. And why should they have to - nobody should be conditioned to accept intimidation and harassment as a part of the job.

"This is the exact reason why women do not join politics" said Atishi.

Personal abuse and threats can be a harrowing experience for anyone. Atishi and the rest may have been strong enough to not back down, and continue with their campaigns, but others might choose to give up. Violation deters women from running for public office. Studies have revealed that it affects their political participation by intimidating them and discouraging them from pursuing leadership positions.

Despite the bravado and determination to carry on, it takes a toll - on women as well as on society. It creates an atmosphere of distrust and fear. There is a growing recognition of the tangible benefits if women are included in the political mainstream. It is absolutely imperative both to sustain a vibrant democracy and bring about gender equality. Half of India needs to have a voice. Increasing female participation will only lead to a more equitable and just world. It will impact individuals, families, communities and ultimately the country. And thus we cannot afford to have women hesitate before stepping into the political murky waters.

To ensure a level playing field, the law must be more firm, and action against the perpetrator should be taken immediately. Social media platforms need to be more accountable and responsive in tackling abusive content. Sometimes it is not possible to track the person responsible for the slurs and insults.

In which case prominent members of society must stand with the woman targeted and set an example for the rest. Education and sensitisation is the key to changing mindsets. The tallest leaders of our country must be more vocal about condemning such attacks. Women should find support both within and outside their communities. It sounds idealistic, but one step at a time we need to move forward on this. In an ideal world, the victimised candidate should not win the elections based on a sympathy vote, but on merit, if they deserve it.

The Women's Representation Bill, pending for years, proposes to reserve 33% of the seats in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies for women. We might end up reserving the seats in the future, but who are the women who will be willing to step forward and claim it. For every one Hema Malini or Atishi who choose to brush off derisive laughter and criticism, there will be many more capable, accomplished, committed and experienced women who will choose to back off. There is no dearth of potential in our country, we have enough women who can make a difference. But how many would be willing to subject themselves to this kind of harassment and hate?

(Ekta is a columnist and a writer. She represents India on multiple forums in the European Union on human right campaigns, gender related issues and is working closely with the EU to strengthen ties between the two countries. She is also a Chartered Accountant and an MBA from IIM Calcutta)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of OneIndia and OneIndia does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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