Written by Arundhati Chakrabarti
Among the many promises made by parties in the high-voltage Assembly election battle, a common thread stands out — the focus on women. While the appeal to the woman electorate is not new, this time the emphasis has been on financial assistance and “empowerment”, apart from the usual promises of reservations, appliances etc.
In Assam, for instance, while the ruling BJP has promised to enhance payments to women under the ‘Orunodoi’ scheme, the Congress has pitched a monthly salary for homemakers. The latter was in fact raised by Kamal Haasan last year when the actor-turned politician called for “due recognition” to the “unrecognised and unmonetized” work done by homemakers.
In Bengal, the Trinamool has promised income support to female heads of 1.6 crore households — Rs 500 a month to families of general category and Rs 1,000 to SC/ST families. The BJP has proposed the same, besides 33% reservation for women in jobs. Down south, in Kerala, the promises are more specific. The ruling LDF has promised washing machines and grinders.
With the turnout of women voters rising over the last two decades, political parties are trying their best to win their support. The focus on women also comes at an important time, with 2017 recording the lowest levels of female labour force participation since Independence, and the pandemic driving out 26.6% of the female workforce between March-April 2020. In politics too, the representation is dismal. The percentage of women ministers has decreased from 23.1% in 2019 to 9.1% in 2021, while the number of MPs stands at 14.4%.
“The promises in manifestos in these elections are not empowering women to fight back. The promises of economic support such as concessional interest rates and payment for homemakers, continue the system of protectionism rather than change it,” says Dr Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, who believes that manifestos reflect the ideological perspective of parties dominated by men.
But the promises have scaled up women as a voters’ block, says Dr Manisha Priyam, professor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration — a phenomenon seen recently in Bihar.
Many experts, however, continue to remain sceptical of any real impact of these promises. “Women perform unpaid work both in the economic domain and as housework… When one talks about women’s work not being recognised, a subsidy is in a sense recognition. However, if housework is drudgery, then do we accept that women escape this by receiving a payment? Should housework remain the women’s responsibility?… Also, women are not getting jobs, or they are getting the low paying jobs, mostly in the informal sector. Why are women not getting opportunities in the job market? That is the key question,” says Indu Agnihotri, former director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies.
Dr Nandita Dhawan, professor at Jadavpur University, says she finds the discourse “amusing” given that “there is noble rhetoric on empowerment on the one hand, and on the other there is this sexist language used against women candidates”.
The rhetoric aside, recognition of the woman voter could perhaps lead to recognition of her struggles. As Dr Agnihotri points out, the promise of a pension for homemakers in Kerala is “on the lines of providing a form of social security, midway between the right to work and a subsidy, but it at least begins a discussion on women’s work as work.”
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 11, 2021 under the title ‘In poll season, recognising her vote’