This election, we travelled through seven states, speaking to dozens of women from various demographic groups, to understand what they wanted.
We called the resulting series of reports Half the Vote because women form nearly half the total number of voters in India and they are voting in larger numbers than ever. In 2014, female voter turnout rose to a historic high of 65.5%.
It can be argued that many of the issues facing voters – jobs, water, food security – are common to men and women. So why did we choose to focus on women?
For one, despite a rise in women’s participation as voters, their representation in Parliament is as low as 11%, and women’s voices are often missing from political discussions in the media and everywhere else.
At campaign rallies and in speeches, most politicians reduce women’s problems to a singular concern: safety and security. In reality, women across India have many more concerns that remain unaddressed by political parties. Women also have distinctly different perspectives on issues they share with men, because the realities of their daily lives are very different.
The Half the Vote series allowed us to speak to women about their lives, hopes and political expectations through the lens of their experiences. Here is what we found.
1) Women have limited control over their lives
Most women still lead lives controlled by men and their families, with some variation based on region and demographic.
Women who have had little education rely on men for information and are therefore influenced by them while making decisions. Those who have gone to school and even college are often forced to rely on men because of social hierarchies.
In fact, even many privileged and educated women in cities lack access to their own official documents – they are held by male family members – making it difficult for them to live independently and make their own financial decisions.
Taking part in public life does not mean freedom at home. In rural Rajasthan, for example, women who are part of collectives fighting for land and food rights still need their husbands’ permission to step out of their homes.
In Gujarat’s Porbandar, a woman sarpanch spends her days cleaning and cooking while her husband discharges all her sarpanch duties. At the panchayat office, the sarpanch’s desk bears his name and even schoolchildren in the village identify him as the sarpanch.
2) Women have less access to news and information
There is a gender asymmetry when it comes to access to knowledge, information and news.
We met several women in their 30s and early 40s who have had little or no education and so cannot read. Women with access to television either do not have time to watch the news or use their TV time to wind down with entertainment programmes. Many women do not have as much access to smartphones as men.
This significantly harms a women’s ability to make autonomous and informed decisions as voters.
3) Women have less time to discuss politics
While men sit and discuss politics at tea shops and village squares, women are busy at work.
In both villages and cities, after they are done working in fields or factories, women spend the rest of their day cooking and cleaning. This leaves them little time to catch up with the news or discuss politics even if they are so inclined. This further deepens the information vacuum.
Several women said they wanted to vote for whoever had done good work but they did not even know the names of their candidates.
In Gujarat’s Godhra town, a Muslim woman who works from home was utterly unaware that men in her community were concerned about communal politics. While the men discussed these concerns in their own groups outdoors, the woman had not even heard the term “Hindutva”. “It must be the plural of Hindu, right?” she asked.
4) Most women depend on others to make their voting decisions
Restricted freedoms and lack of information mean many women depend on people around them to make decisions about whom to vote for.
In many areas, women were waiting for the village to hold a meeting to discuss and decide which candidate to support. Some other women said they vote the way their families – their husbands or fathers – do.
Such is the influence of men that a woman and her daughters in Telangana said they were voting for the Bharatiya Janata Party because her deceased husband had been a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the party’s ideological parent. He died but his politics lived on through the women.
5) Younger women are growing more assertive
In spite of male control over their lives, younger women in rural and urban India are growing more assertive. For one, they are resisting family pressure to get married by studying and working.
“I keep telling people I will marry after my training,” said a woman from a Scheduled Tribe community in Rajasthan’s Kaneti village who is training to join the police. “But I really need that police job afterwards or else my in-laws will ask me to do housework.”
They are also rebelling against family diktats on who to vote for. A young woman in Mumbai described how her father, who keeps the family’s official documents with him, almost refused to give her access to her voter identity card as she did not want to vote for the party that he supports. She eventually had her way.
6) One way of influencing women voters is by creating special schemes for them
Despite limited autonomy and information, women recognise and respond to initiatives aimed at them, provided they are systematic and sustained.
In Tamil Nadu, for instance, former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who died in December 2016, is still the tallest leader for many women voters because she implemented welfare schemes for them.
In Telangana, Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao is popular among women because his government is providing maternity assistance kits, hygiene kits for schoolgirls and widow pensions.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gained the attention of women by giving low-income households free cooking gas cylinders under the Ujjwala scheme and money to build toilets under the Swachh Bharat Mission.
Since such benefits are provided in the name of the woman of the household, men in rural Rajasthan taunt women by calling the last five years “lugai ka raj”, or the wife’s reign.
However, women are quick to point out that these schemes have not necessarily made a difference to their lives: many Swachh Bharat toilets lie unused because villages often do not have enough water; Ujjwala gas cylinders are often dumped in a corner when families realise they cannot afford to refill them.
7) Women’s voices remain unheard
While central and state governments are implementing women-centric schemes, their approach remains top-down. Politicians are not listening and reacting to the specific demands of women.
For instance, women working in Karnataka’s garment industry, where they form 90% of the workforce, said better wages and working conditions was the only important election issue for them. They felt candidates would have taken their demands more seriously had more men been working in the sector and making the same demands.
A common refrain among women voters is that no government has worked for them and so it doesn’t really matter who they vote for. This contributes to a lack of interest in elections.
In North Karnataka, women demanding statewide prohibition of alcohol urged other women across 18 districts to either abstain from voting or reject all candidates by choosing the NOTA, or none of the above, button. The boycott, they hoped, would send a message to their candidates that whoever wanted the women’s vote would have to the issue of prohibition seriously.
Read more in the series: