Delhi is hardly a model city when it comes to sex ratio. Its population includes as few as 868 women for every 1000 men, and under 45 per cent of its registered voters are women.
Nonetheless, the Indian capital still has more than 7.8m female citizens. And with elections to the city’s legislature due on 7 February, the “woman issue” seems to be rearing its head – perhaps not for the first time, but surely in more certain and assertive terms than it has before.
Partly this is because women’s safety, specifically sexual safety, has become a big issue in the wake of the protests following the gang rape of a student in Delhi in December 2012. The three main parties competing – Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Congress, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – have all pledged to make safety for the city’s women their priority.
BJP has even gone on to publish a 25 point programme for women’s safety, which includes better street lighting and distribution of “safety kits” to women. It’s also fielding a Kiran Bedi – the first woman officer to join the Indian Police Service in 1972, who’s since become known as the “Iron Woman” – as its chief ministerial candidate. Meanwhile, Nupur Sharma, a 30 year old graduate of the London School of Economics, is the challenger in the seat currently held by the AAP’s chief ministerial candidate Arvind Kejriwal.
All of this was to be expected: in a survey carried out last November, women’s safety emerged as the top issue for voters in Delhi. But the parties’ assumption that they can win women’s votes simply by campaigning on this single issue may land them in trouble. Indeed, in a subsequent survey of the Delhi electorate, conducted in January, inflation took the top slot; women’s safety had fallen down the list.
The reality is that there are other issues which may have a disproportionate effect on the city’s women, not least inflation and employment. This singular approach also fails to take into account the diversity among women living in Delhi. For the large number of migrant women working in the informal sector, the rising cost of living, housing, health and lack of job opportunities may be just as important as, or even more important than, safety.
There is also discontent over how few female candidates are standing – raising questions regarding how far the party’s commitment to gender equality actually goes. There are 70 seats in the Delhi legislative assembly; between them, the three parties are fielding just 19 women candidates. Even if all of these win their seats (unlikely), they’d make up only 27 per cent of Delhi’s legislators.
So, although women’s presence in these elections seems to be more pervasive than before, it’s mostly owing to a few high profile female candidates, rather than an actual increase in the numbers overall. And it’s remarkable that, with so much emphasis on women’s safety, none of the parties have even discussed trying to engage more women in governance.
Women’s safety may move up and down the ranking of issues in the imminent elections, but the parties’ failure to place women on an equal footing with men will not go unnoticed. In the 2014 general elections in India, women voted in large numbers with a 65 turnout, up from 57 per cent in 2009. As demographics and gender dynamics change, the importance of the women’s vote is only going to increase.
If India’s politicians have foresight, they will understand that they can’t take voters for a ride by paying attention to a single issue. Women want more than to be able to walk the streets without the fear of being raped.