Indian women are voting more than ever before. In many states, their turnout is now higher than that of men. But political discussions in the country rarely feature women – even in the media.

What are women thinking on the eve of the 2019 election?

Aarefa Johari and Nayantara Narayanan travel to find out in Half the Vote, a series that brings you the stories and perspectives of women – only women – on life and politics.

On April 19, ten days before voting day in Rajasthan’s Udaipur constituency, 17 women assembled at the panchayat hall in Salumbar block’s Matasula village. Unfazed by the oppressive heat, they sat listening intently as a social worker from Aajeevika Bureau, a labour rights organisation, explained the difference between panchayat, state and national elections.

It was a brief civics lesson, with no mention of political parties or their leaders. At the end of it, the social worker quizzed them. “So what is the upcoming election meant for?” she asked.

Some of the women responded promptly, “For Modi ji.”

The 17 women from different villages in Salumbar were all members of Ujala, a rural women’s collective that Aajeevika Bureau founded in 2010. The collective, which has more than 12,500 members across south Rajasthan, helps women understand their rights and fight for them together. Over the years, many of these women have fought corrupt ration dealers and demanded their land rights, among other things.

With the Lok Sabha election coming up in parts of Rajasthan on April 29, the Ujala meeting in Salumbar was organised specifically to discuss the impact of government policies on local women’s lives in the past five years, and to draw up a list of demands to submit to different poll candidates in the region. As the discussion progressed, the women brought up everything from the Swachh Bharat Mission and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme to pensions and the Ujjwala scheme for free cooking gas connections.

“We got Rs 12,000 for building toilets,” said Kalubai Bargot, an Ujala member from Baroliya village. “But there is no water connection, so how do we use them?”

“We got job cards [under NREGS],” another woman said. “But they only pay us Rs 110 or Rs 150 a day, while men get Rs 300 a day for the same work. How is this fair?”

In Lalibai’s village, there was no anganwadi for young children. For Hagribai, the main concern was irregular mid-day meals that left her children hungry at school. Several women had received gas connections, but not for free: Ujjwala scheme agents had charged them up to Rs 1,300 for a cylinder without giving them a receipt. Since refilling cylinders is expensive, many women are cooking on firewood stoves again.

Despite the problems with implementing many of these women-centric schemes, members of the Ujala collective had a largely favourable opinion of the Bharatiya Janata Party government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Our husbands say it has become lugai ka raj [a wife’s reign] under this government,” said Lalibai Meena, referring to government benefits that are only given in women’s names. “This is a good thing, no?”

Members of Salumbar block's Ujala collective discuss their expectations from the government at a meeting on April 19. Photos: Aarefa Johari

‘I fought alone’

The Ujala women were quick to admit that the phrase “lugai ka raj” was a bit hyperbolic: most of them still cannot step out of the house without their husbands’ permission. Those who were truly empowered – like Kalubai Bargot and Pujibai Meena – attributed their strength and confidence not to any government scheme, but to the collective and to themselves.

Pujibai Meena, for instance, learnt to fight solo battles as an adolescent, when she was married into a large family from the Bhil Meena community in Vadatra village. Unwilling to put up with mistreatment by her in-laws, she insisted on moving out with her husband after demanding their share of the family’s assets. Her husband did not speak to her for two years, and soon became a migrant labourer in Ahmedabad like thousands of other men in the district. Every few months, he sends Rs 10,000 or Rs 20,000 to support Meena and their four children, aged between 10 and 18.

“But I earned for myself by growing papaya and saving up to build a small kirana store,” said Meena, whose 9-year-old grocery store now brings her Rs 4,000 every month.

Meena began asserting herself beyond the home in 2012, after she joined the women’s collective. “In our village, the ration shop was not giving proper rations to BPL [below poverty line] families, so I decided to complain about the ration dealer in the village tribunal,” said Meena. The ration dealer was an upper-caste Rajput. After her complaint, Meena claims she was accosted at night by the sarpanch and other block-level officials, who first tried to bribe her to drop her complaint, and then threatened her with violence. When Meena stood her ground, she antagonised Rajputs in the whole village.

Pujibai Meena is proud of her courage and assertiveness.

“Some two years ago, a Rajput family bought goods worth Rs 3,500 from my shop and refused to pay for it for a year,” said Meena. When she complained to the panchayat, seven Rajput women showed up at her door, beat her and tore her clothes. “They said, how dare you ask us for money, you are of a lower caste,” said Meena. “None of my in-laws came to help me at the time. So I fought alone.” Meena then approached the police and had the head of the Rajput family arrested. “He had to pay Rs 10,000 to get bail and also pay me back with interest,” she said, smiling proudly.

‘We have nothing to our name’

In Baroliya village on the slopes of the Aravalli hills, Kalubai Bargot is equally proud of how far she has come. A decade ago, she was just another Bhil Meena woman spending her days cooking, fetching water, raising three children and tilling her husband’s land.

On paper, that farmland belonged to the state government’s forest department, but indigenous communities were demanding ownership rights over the land they had lived on for generations. In cases where the government did grant ownership to a family, the land title would inevitably be in the man’s name.

When Bargot joined the Ujala collective seven years ago, she learnt that women, too, had a claim over forest land ownership. She decided to speak out, and soon became one of the leading voices fighting for women’s names to be included in land titles.

“I tell government officials that we women work so hard before and after marriage, but all we get in return are two rotis in a day,” said Bargot, who is short, thin and speaks with a twinkle in her eyes. “We have nothing to our name. Our husbands may drink, beat us, bring home a second wife or kick us out, and we would have nothing to fall back on.”

With her persistent work in the past seven years, she has helped 30 women in Baroliya win equal land ownership. Her own family’s land title has five names – Bargot, her husband, two sons and a 14-year-old daughter. “Now that my sons are married, I want to add my daughters-in-law to the land title too.”

Kalubai Bargot cooks on an indoor firewood stove because refilling her LPG gas cylinder is too expensive.

‘Modi has done good work, people say’

Despite their growing social consciousness, Meena, Bargot and other women from their collective are neither too aware nor interested in politics. The general impression among many of them is that the Modi government has been satisfactory.

“Modi has done good work, people say. He introduced the Indira Awas Yojana,” said Meena, referring to the BJP’s “housing for all” scheme by its old name.

As a member of the Bhil Mina community, however, Meena claims she might vote for the Bharatiya Tribal Party, a two-year-old party that originated in Gujarat and managed to win two Assembly seats in Rajasthan last year. “Everyone in the village is saying we should vote for the Adivasi party this time, so I guess that is what I will do,” said Meena. Asked if she knew the symbol of the Bharatiya Tribal Party, she said, “Isn’t it the lotus?”

Bargot was aware that the BTP’s symbol is a tempo, and remembered voting for the lotus – the BJP – in 2014. “I don’t know who I will vote for this time. The whole village will meet and decide together,” said Bargot, who claims she likes all the political parties. More importantly, she says, she likes to go and vote. “If you vote, you can ask the government to do things for you.”

A social worker from Aajeevika Bureau helps women from the Ujala collective write a charter of demands from local poll candidates.

Read more in the series:

A weaver in Telangana who will vote for the first time says that no government has helped her family

A businesswoman in Mumbai wants Modi back because he is a ‘powerful person’

A Telangana farmer wants to protect her land, but will vote for the party her village picks

This shop owner in Hyderabad is voting for BJP – even though her business has fallen

A Muslim woman in Godhra says she’s proud that a man from her state is prime minister

A Bengaluru garment worker says politicians ignore the sector since it employs women

An anganwadi helper in Tamil Nadu wants someone to fulfill Jayalalithaa’s promises

A sarpanch in Gujarat credits her husband and Modi for development in her village

A prohibition activist in North Karnataka is urging women to vote NOTA